Loud noises. Crowded places. Feeling overwhelmed or like things are out of control. All of these things are associated with being a parent, but they can also be triggers for a person living with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although raising a child is difficult on its own, the symptoms and emotions surrounding post-traumatic stress can make parenting a struggle. For a child, having a parent with PTSD can be confusing and stressful. With proper communication and treatment, the relationship between parent and child can grow without PTSD getting in the way.
The actions of children can trigger feelings of distress for parents with PTSD. Erin, a mother with PTSD, wondered how her mental illness would affect her ability to raise her two young boys. As a child, she experienced repeated sexual abuse by members of her family, leaving her with the emotional scars of PTSD. She felt constantly torn between her intense love for her children and her fear of her own emotions and how they would impact her children. She would often lock herself away to keep her negative emotions from permeating into the lives of her children. She described having feelings of depression, anger, and anxiety along with repeated nightmares: “PTSD is heartbreaking. Being a parent with PTSD is daunting. It’s heartbreaking because your past robs you and your family of the present and the happiness in it” (Bouvier, n.d.). Having children forced her to confront her past struggles and get help for her PTSD.
PTSD can be complicated and difficult to understand, especially for a child. Despite stigma and general uncomfortability, it is important for there to be open communication between parent and child. When considering opening up to a child about PTSD, it is important to consider the age of the child as well as their experience and prior understanding of the disorder. When a parent openly discusses their experience and symptoms of PTSD, a child may begin to feel relief. Oftentimes, the emotions and behaviors that result from a child triggering a parent can make a child feel guilty, upset, or even afraid. Openly acknowledging that the parent’s reaction to a trigger is not the child’s fault can put a child at ease. It is important to remember that talking about PTSD doesn’t always have to involve talking about the trauma that causes the stress, but instead focus on what the ongoing symptoms are and how that will impact parent and child going forward. The perspective and thoughts of the child during a conversation about PTSD are as important as the parent’s to be able to share their feelings towards the subject going forward.
Brooke, a mother and veteran with PTSD describes how her PTSD has changed the lives of her children. “I worried that I was passing down my combat experience like a mother passes down half of her DNA makeup. My children are different than they would have been if I, their caregiver, nurturer, and life giver, had not served in the Iraq War. Their lives have been shaped by my PTSD triggers and combat experience” (King, 2017). In some cases, her fears were mirrored in her children in the form of nightmares and general discomfort towards the thing that would trigger her PTSD. In order to keep her children from triggering her, Brooke has a series of rules, including being silent while she is driving, not playing war, and avoiding any discussion of death. In the case of Brooke and her two sons, open conversation and clear guidelines regarding potential triggers for Brooke’s PTSD was a helpful tool.
Having PTSD affects the whole family, not just an individual. The parenting style of an individual with PTSD can differ greatly from a parent without. Parents with PTSD may struggle with anxiety, especially when it comes to allowing their children to gain independence and do things on their own as they grow older, often making the child feel suffocated. In calm moments, it is important for the parent to establish important, rational ground rules. To help differentiate between being a concerned parent and PTSD anxieties, it can be helpful for a parent to get a second opinion in the form of a mental health professional, spouse, or another person of support. There are a number of online forums and support groups for parents with PTSD. Discussion and mindfulness in parenting with PTSD is crucial to avoid passing on trauma. Most of all, it is important for trauma survivors to find a balance between parenting and PTSD symptoms.
The impact of having a parent with PTSD can be traumatizing, strengthening, educational, or all of the above. According to a systematic review of the research and data on children whose parents have PTSD, one of the most common feelings experienced by children who had a parent with PTSD was having to be extremely cautious around them. Although having to exercise caution around a parent may not be traumatic or even negative, it can put stress on the relationship between parent and child. In some cases however, feelings of caution lead to feelings of fear towards the actions of the parent (McGaw, 2019). Additionally, children of parents with PTSD often struggle with feelings of guilt, as though they are the reason for the actions caused by their parents PTSD. The impact a parent’s actions can lead to harmful misconceptions, and that is why open communication and discussion are crucial (McGaw, 2019).
Witnessing a parent experience post-traumatic stress can be stressful and scary for a child. In some cases, children who have parents with PTSD can inherit or take on some of the fears associated with their parent’s PTSD. For example, one daughter of a father with PTSD experienced issues trusting other people because her father also had the same issues (McGaw, 2019). Witnessing a parent experience extreme distress caused by PTSD can cause a child to be traumatized or develop fears of their parents triggers (McGaw, 2019). Children of parents with untreated PTSD can be withdrawn, aggressive, have issues concentrating, anxiety, and depression.
Oftentimes, it is the stigma surrounding PTSD that causes the most difficulty. It is often believed that people with PTSD, or mental illness in general, can’t be good parents. Stigma can cause a parent to doubt themselves and their own skills and ability to raise their children. There is not one single parent-child relationship, each relationship is different. People with PTSD are perfectly capable of raising happy children, they just have to communicate and know when to reach out for help.
Bouvier, E. (n.d.) Mommy’s Hidden Monster: Parenting With PTSD. Her View From Home. https://herviewfromhome.com/mommys-hidden-monster-parenting-with-ptsd/
Brico, E. (2017). Why Kids Trigger Parents with PTSD and What to Do About It. HealthyPlace. https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2017/11/kids-trigger-ptsd
King, B. (2017). A Veteran Wonders: How Will My PTSD Affect My Kids? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/11/a-vet-wonders-how-will-my-ptsd-affect-my-kids/547034/
McGaw, V. E., Reupert, A. E., & Maybery, D. (2019). Military Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Qualitative Systematic Review of the Experience of Families, Parents and Children. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 28(11), 2942–2952. https://doi-org.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/10.1007/s10826-019-01469-7
The Oaks at La Palma. (n.d.) How a Parent’s PTSD Affects Children. https://theoakstreatment.com/ptsd/how-a-parents-ptsd-affects-children/
Powell, T. (2019). Parenting While Living with Complex PTSD. HealthyPlace. https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2019/3/parenting-while-living-with-complex-ptsd
Sherman, M.D., Straits-Troster, K., Larsen, J., Gress-Smith, J. (2015). A Veteran’s Guide to Talking About PTSD With Kids. South Central Mental Illness Research, Educational, and Clinical Center. https://www.mirecc.va.gov/VISN16/docs/Talking_with_Kids_about_PTSD.pdf