How Parents With PTSD Can Talk to Their Children About Their Symptoms
A Definition of PTSD
The National Institute of Mental Health defines post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) as a condition that develops in some people who have gone through a scary, shocking, or dangerous event. Other triggers can be traumatic events, such as the sudden death of a loved one.
Symptoms that last more than one month and are severe enough to interfere with the patient’s work or relationships are considered to be PTSD. Symptoms usually start within three months of the traumatic event but sometimes manifest years later. Recovery varies from person to person, with some recovering within six months and others developing chronic PTSD.
Diagnostic Criteria of PTSD
A diagnosis is based on the manifestation of one or two of the following symptoms:
One incidence of re-experiencing the trauma
People with PTSD may have frightening thoughts, nightmares or flashbacks in which they relive the trauma over and over.
“Fight or flight” response
Many people feel afraid after traumatic experiences. Their fear can trigger split-second changes that the body uses to avoid or defend against danger. People who have PTSD may feel frightened or stressed, even when they are not in danger.
One symptom of avoidance
Patients may avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic occurrence such as objects, places, or events, as well as feelings or thoughts related to the experience.
Emotional and reactive symptoms
These symptoms include being easily startled, having problems sleeping, being tense, and having angry outbursts.
Negative cognitive and mood effects
The patient has problems remembering important aspects of the event, has a lack of interest in pleasurable activities, and experiences distorted feelings such as blame or guilt. They may have a negative outlook on themselves and the world and are isolated from the people around them.
PTSD affects 3.5 percent of the U.S. adult population. Within that group, 36.6 percent of these cases are classified as severe.
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 with 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?” I lived in fear because I could never figure out what would trigger their rage. 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 post-traumatic stress disorder as well as other emotional problems. Both lived through terrible traumatic events during World War 2.
My father spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in a Russian camp and had to live with starvation, brutality, and the constant threat of death. My mother lived in Madrid when civil war broke out and in Berlin during the Russian occupation. I suspect that she went through some extremely traumatic events at that time.
The Effects of Parental PTSD on Children
As a child, I blamed myself for the way my parents treated me. I decided that I was an inferior being who deserved punishment. Many children whose parents have PTSD experience these symptoms.
How parental PTSD can affect children:
- Low self-esteem
- Feeling confused about their parents’ behavior or mood
- Are fearful of their parent’s anger
- Worrying about their parents
- Feelings of hurt and rejection when parents withdraw from them
- Blaming themselves for their parents’ PTSD symptoms
- Resentment towards the parents
- Sadness and depression because of the situation
In rare cases, some children may start to experience their parents' symptoms in nightmares, thinking about their parents’ trauma when they should be concentrating on school or other things. In extreme cases, discipline problems or withdrawal from family and friends may occur.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs characterizes many children of parents with PTSD as falling into these categories:
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.
These children fill in for parents with PTSD when their parents are experiencing symptoms. The children may act too grownup 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
Come out of Denial
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 that truly horrified him when I was in my early teens. It occurred after he been released from a Russian camp and had returned to Germany. He visited a concentration camp and was shocked and appalled by sight of the ovens where the bodies of Holocaust victims were burned. Near the end of his life, however, he denied that the Holocaust ever happened.
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 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 struggled with anxiety and depression.
Recognize how PTSD is affecting them
Parents need to be aware when their symptoms are affecting their children and realize the impact their condition has on their kids. Parents can share that they are feeling irritable or angry, for example, and emphasize that their mood is not their children's fault. Their children will then 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 how they are feeling, how much they share should be age-appropriate. They do not need to go into detail 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 the children the PTSD symptoms are not their fault
According to Psychology Today, children tend to internalize family problems. They should also be reassured that it is not their responsibility to fix their parents or family difficulties.
Establish two-way communication
Parents should ask children about their reactions to their symptoms. They should be encouraged to share both positive and negative feelings in a non-judgmental atmosphere.
Parents should not feel pressure 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.
Sharing the trauma should not be too detailed
Experts at UCLA say that 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.
My parents rarely spoke about their wartime experiences, but when they did, it had a dramatic impact on me. My mother told me one story burned in my memory in my teens. My father was forced to dig his own grave by is Russian guards. Some of the guards’ superiors saw this and reprimanded them. My father was released but knew he escaped death that day. Most of the other stories I heard were less graphic or detailed, but I could read their trauma between the lines.
It was beneficial for me to know these stories because it helped me to understand that the PTSD was responsible for their irritability, anger, and emotional detachment, and not 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 and medications that are tailored to their individual needs.
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