The Impact of a Veteran’s PTSD on Children
Researchers have recently examined the impact of veterans' posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms on family relationships, and on their children in particular. This article explains the common problems that children of veterans experience and provides recommendations for what to do if PTSD is affecting a child’s life.
How would a veteran's PTSD symptoms affect his or her children?
Re-experiencing the event – Veterans with PTSD often relive traumatic events through vivid daytime memories or dreams. These flashbacks can occur suddenly and without intention, and are typically accompanied by intense emotions, such as grief, guilt, fear or anger. These symptoms can be frightening for children who witness them. Children may not understand what is happening or why it is happening, and they may start to worry about their parent's well-being.
Avoidance and emotional numbing – Because reliving the traumatic event is so uncomfortable, the veteran may do almost anything he or she can to avoid thinking about it. As a result, a veteran with PTSD may not want to do even the most common things, such as going to the store, out to dinner or to a movie. Children may interpret this as the parent not caring about them when, in reality, the parent is avoiding situations that may trigger a flashback. In addition to active avoidance, individuals with PTSD often struggle with giving or receiving positive emotions. It’s easier to be neutral – or numb. Avoidance and numbing symptoms directly impact children. When a parent with PTSD withdraws from family, children can inaccurately interpret this as the parent not being interested in them or loving them.
Being hyperalert - Individuals with PTSD tend to have a high level of anxiety and sense of impending danger. They can be easily irritated and may exhibit an exaggerated concern for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones. It is easy to see how being hyperalert all the time can affect a child. For instance, irritability and low frustration tolerance can make a parent seem hostile, again making children question the parent's love for them.
What are the common problems children of veterans with PTSD face?
Social and behavioral problems - Children of veterans with PTSD are at higher risk for behavioral, academic and interpersonal problems. Their parents often describe them as more depressed, anxious, aggressive, hyperactive and delinquent compared to children of veterans who do not have PTSD. In addition, the children may have difficulty establishing and maintaining friendships. Chaotic internal family experiences can make it difficult for children to create healthy relationships outside the family.
Emotional problems - Children may start to experience the parent's PTSD symptoms, such as having nightmares about their parent's traumatic event. They may develop PTSD symptoms, such as having trouble concentrating, because they can’t get their mind off their parent's difficulties. The impact that a parent’s PTSD has on a child is often called secondary traumatization.
What should I do if PTSD is affecting my children?
An excellent first step in helping children cope is to explain the reasons for the parent's difficulties, without burdening the child with graphic details. It is important to help children see that the PTSD is not related to them; that they are not to blame. How much a parent says should be influenced by the child's age and maturity level.
In addition to this basic first step, there are many treatment options available for affected families. Treatment can include individual treatment for the veteran (symptom improvement for the person suffering from PTSD would also benefit the family) and family therapy. Children may benefit from individual therapy as well, with variations based on the child's age (e.g., art or play therapy for younger children, supportive talk therapy for older children and adolescents).
Each family is unique, and decisions about what kind of treatment to seek, if any, can be complicated. The most important thing is to help each member of the family, including the children, have a voice in expressing what he or she needs.
Adapted from information found on www.ptsd.va.gov
Confidential help is available
You're not alone. We're here to help. The Illinois Warrior Assistance Program is a free program for returning Veterans. Confidential assistance is available M-F, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. CT. You can also ask a specialist. Call now – 866-554-IWAP (4927).
Created by Magellan Health Services staff; reviewed by Magellan clinical staff