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How Parents With PTSD Can Talk to Their Children About Their Symptoms

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.

During my childhood, my parents could be distant and moody. They would withdraw from me emotionally at times and isolate themselves. Sometimes they would suddenly become angry and lash out at me verbally or hit me with painful “spankings.” I kept hearing, “You are so stupid,” “That was a dumb thing to do,” and “Can’t you do anything right?” My self-esteem was in tatters. I felt worthless.

Looking back as an adult, I have concluded that both my parents, especially my father, suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder and other emotional problems. Both lived through terrible, traumatizing events during World War 2. My parents did not talk much about this time, but a few stories they told helped me understand their condition and recognize the signs of PTSD.

According to the National Center for PTSD, Parents with PTSD need to understand how their condition impacts their kids and be prepared to talk to their children about it.

How Parental PTSD Can Affect Children

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling confused about their parents’ behavior or mood
  • Are fearful of their parents' anger
  • Worrying about their parents
  • Feelings of hurt and rejection when parents withdraw from them
  • Blaming themselves for their parent's PTSD symptoms
  • Resentment and anger towards the parents
  • Sadness and depression

In rare cases, some children may start to experience their parents' symptoms in nightmares. They think about their parents’ trauma when they should be concentrating on school or other things. In extreme cases, children may develop discipline problems or withdrawal from family and friends.

Categories of Children whose Parents Have PTSD

According to the Military Parent Technical Center, children of parents with PTSD tend to fall into the following categories.

“Over-identified” Children

These children try to connect to their parents with PTSD by feeling and behaving just like their parents. The child may also show many of the same symptoms as the parent.

“Rescuer” Kids

These children fill in for parents with PTSD while their parents are experiencing symptoms. The children may act too grown up for their age.

“Emotionally Uninvolved” Children

These children do not get the emotional help they need. They may have mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, issues at school, and relationship problems later in life.

How Parents Can Talk to their Kids About Their PTSD

Recognize Barriers to Communication such as Denial, Discomfort, and Stigma

According to The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, parents with PTSD may feel uncomfortable talking about their condition. There is a lot of shame and stigma out there.

People who were in the military may have been taught that emotions were signs of weakness. It is common for people with PTSD to numb their emotions or avoid dealing with their symptoms. Children may misinterpret this behavior as a lack of interest in them.

My mother and father rarely spoke about the trauma they experienced during the war and seemed to either suppress or deny their trauma. On one rare occasion, my father shared an experience with me when I was a teen that truly horrified him.

It occurred after Dad had been released from a Russian camp after five and a half years of imprisonment and had returned to Germany. He visited a concentration camp and was shocked and appalled by the horrible conditions and the ovens where the bodies of Holocaust victims were burned. However, near the end of his life, he denied that the holocaust had happened.

My parents seemed to shut down at times and avoid me. I felt rejected. I interpreted their avoidance and isolation as me not being worthy of their attention and I struggled with anxiety and depression.

Recognize How PTSD is Affecting The Kids

According to healthyplace.com, parents need to be aware of the impact of their symptoms on their children and address the issues. One way to handle situations is to apologize for inappropriate behavior.

Parents can share that they are feeling irritable or angry and emphasize that their mood is not their children's fault. Then their children will not blame themselves for their parent’s symptoms. Once I understood that my parents’ hostility and avoidance was not my fault, I was able to feel compassion for them.

Keep Communication Lines Open and Age-Appropriate

While parents should talk to their children about their feelings, how much they share should be limited and age-appropriate. According to UCLA Health, parents do not need to go into details about the trauma they experienced, but they should discuss the general symptoms. For example, they can say, “I am irritated right now because of some bad memories. I am working on getting better.”

Use Appropriate Language

Parents should consider how they will answer their children’s questions and remarks. It is OK to say, “I need to think about that. Let’s talk about it later,” or “I need to talk to your dad (or mom) about this before we discuss it.” A mental health professional may be able to help with more difficult issues.

Tell Children the PTSD Symptoms Are Not Their Fault

Children tend to internalize family problems and sometimes blame themselves. Parents should reassure their kids that it is not the kid's responsibility to fix their parents or family difficulties.

Establish Two-Way Communication

Parents should ask children about their reactions to their symptoms. Kids should be encouraged to share both positive and negative feelings in a non-judgmental atmosphere.

Parents Should Not Feel Pressured to Be Perfect

There are times that people with PTSD do not feel well or want to avoid being triggered by an event or venue. If children see that their parents are trying to deal with their symptoms, they will accept their parents’ imperfections.

Talking About Trauma Should Not Be Too Detailed

Parents can describe their symptoms in general terms. Young children have difficulty processing emotionally charged information. They should only be told what they need to know. Parents should share information a little bit at a time. Explaining that a scary or bad experience occurred is enough for younger children. Too much graphic content can traumatize children.

Reach Out for Help

Mental health professionals can help parents to develop communication skills with their children. Many organizations such as veterans support groups and government agencies can provide information and support.

My parents rarely spoke about their wartime experiences, but it had a dramatic impact on me when they did. My mother told me one story about my dad that burned in my memory in my teens. My father was a prisoner of war in a Russian camp. He was forced to dig his own grave by several Russian guards. Some of the guards’ superiors saw this and reprimanded the guards.

My father was released but knew he escaped death that day. Most of the other stories I heard about his wartime experiences were less graphic or detailed, but I could read their trauma between the lines.

Knowing these stories was beneficial because it helped me understand that PTSD was partially responsible for their irritability, anger, and emotional detachment and were not triggered by something I said or did.

While I was growing up, PTSD was referred to as “shell shock” and other ambiguous terms that were not well understood. My parents passed on years ago before treatments were available. Nowadays, people with PTSD can be helped through psychotherapy, medications, and other treatments tailored to their individual needs.

Here are some helpful resources about PTSD:

PTSD: National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), National Institute of Mental Health
Mayo Clinic
The National Institute of Mental Health
American Psychiatric Association

Reference:

When a Child's Parent has PTSD, U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), National Institute of Mental Health
Parents with PTSD Need to Talk to Their Kids, UCLA - Los Angeles
Veteran Families: Understanding and Talking With Kids About PTSD, The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, Wes Sanders, Ph.D.



This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Carola Finch