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What It’s Like to Have a Parent with PTSD

COMMUNITY SERVICES

What is it like for a child to experience a parent who has PTSD? Let’s take a look.

When a service member experiences something traumatic in the line of duty, it doesn’t just affect them—it affects the ones they love, too. 

Military families often experience the aftermath of trauma in unseen ways…especially children, who might not fully understand why their parent/s had to deploy and why they might seem different now. 

So, what is it like for a child to experience a parent who has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? And how can Veteran parents take extra measures to care for their children if they’ve experienced trauma or been diagnosed? 

Let’s take a look at the symptoms of PTSD, how they might affect children of diagnosed parents, and what parents can do to seek healing for themselves and their families. 

PTSD Affects Military Families

According to the American Psychological Association, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident, or natural disaster. 

Statistics have shown that about 75 percent of U.S. Veteran and active duty service members who were surveyed stated that they have experienced PTSD as a result of their post-9/11 military service from 2017 to 2021.

But what does PTSD look like?

“In reality, [the symptoms] look different for everybody,” said Rhonda Gaston, Lead Clinician at The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics at Endeavors, San Antonio. “The umbrella of symptoms can be everything from emotional dysregulation to intrusive memories. It typically creates this ripple effect in their relationships, which includes the spouse and the children.” 

A few of the most common include: emotional dysregulation, poor communication, and avoidance. 

Emotional Dysregulation 

When someone with PTSD experiences a trigger that’s related to their trauma experience, their mood is often affected. This is called emotional dysregulation—it can cause the person to withdraw, have an outburst, or just generally experience anger, sadness, or guilt. 

“It can look like having a lot of ups and downs,” said Gaston. 

For children, this can affect development. Children often look to their parents to understand how to move through the world, said Michelle Cortez, a clinician at The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics at Endeavors, El Paso.

“Children look up to adults to learn how to control their emotions because they literally don’t know how,” said Cortez. “Their brain does not have the tools to help them do that. At home, they’re looking at their parents to learn: ‘What do I do when I feel angry? What do I do when I feel worried or sad?” 

She explains that emotional regulation is very, very important for children to witness so that they can get a baseline example of healthy coping skills and emotional responses.

Poor Communication

When individuals have experienced trauma, they have a really hard time communicating and putting words to what they’re feeling inside, said Gaston. “What that could look like for a child is that maybe mom or dad are always angry and are not demonstrating effective ways of communication. That might stunt the child’s development or make it difficult for them to develop good communication skills.”

James Williams, a clinician at The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics at Endeavors, Killeen, says that parents might have a hard time communicating affection. “Sometimes they can become detached,” he said. “If, before the parent left, they gave hugs or kissed their child goodbye, they might be detached and numb now, less likely to give out affection. The child might notice and might think, “Mommy or Daddy doesn’t love me anymore.”

Avoidance

PTSD might cause the affected person to avoid loud spaces or crowds, for fear of triggers. 

“Here in San Antonio during the summer, it might mean the parent doesn’t want to go to SeaWorld or Six Flags, even though their child is begging them to go,” said Gaston. “Or, it could look like avoidance of wanting to do normal activities that others would look at as fun family activities.” 

The child might internalize this avoidance and think, “Wow, my parent doesn’t want to spend time with me,” when really that’s not the case. It’s just somebody really suffering from those symptoms of unresolved trauma.

Williams explained that children can internalize these symptoms by withdrawing and turning inward or by externalizing with more outward behaviors like outbursts or displaying high anxiety. Sometimes they could even look like some ADHD symptoms if the child just can’t concentrate or can’t focus. 

What Can You Do? Seek Help. 

So, what can parents with PTSD do to care for both their child and themselves? According to all three clinicians we spoke with, the answer is simple: seek help from a professional. 

“PTSD is treatable,” said Williams. “And here at the Cohen Clinics, we use research-based, evidence-based practices to help people recover.”

Cortez explained that, while many people might try to go it alone, an outside source is vital for those with PTSD. 

“PTSD might mean that your brain is having some difficulty processing or making sense of what happened, engaging in evidence-based, trauma-focused treatment is imperative. In this process, someone else will come along with you to process and make sense of what happened so that you can find recovery and healing.” 

Cortez encourages people suffering from PTSD to practice self-compassion in the process. 

“PTSD changes the way your brain works,” she said. “In a sense, your brain is shaped in a different way after a traumatic event. So, it’s not about willpower or toughness. The fact that your symptoms are interfering with your family life doesn’t mean the love for your children or your family is not there. Doing treatment is imperative to take back power and control over the choices you want to make in your life and find healing.”

The Cohen Clinics 

Service members and their families have sacrificed so much to bring us safety and peace of mind, and we feel it is our duty to provide high-quality, holistic care for our Veterans. “Our mission is really to serve not just the Veteran, but the entire family,” said Gaston. “And that’s the amazing part of it.” 

The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics at Endeavors provide in-person and virtual high-quality, accessible, and integrated mental health care services addressing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, sleep problems, adolescent behavioral issues, relationship and family stress, etc. to Veterans, regardless of role while in uniform, discharge status, or combat experience, active duty service members (with a TRICARE referral), and military families. 

“That’s what I love about Cohen Clinic,” said Williams. “We treat PTSD, we work with kids, we help marriages. We want the work we do to extend beyond their time at the clinic. We’re looking to help enhance their marriages and their relationships with their children.”

We currently offer services provided by credentialed staff trained to work with military populations at three Texas clinics: El Paso, Killeen, and San Antonio. If interested in learning more about our services, upcoming events, and how you can make a difference in the lives of those who served by supporting our mission, visit endeavors.org/cohen-clinics and follow us on social media.


About Cohen Veterans Network

Cohen Veterans Network (CVN) is a 501(c)(3) national not-for-profit philanthropic network of mental health clinics for post-9/11 Veterans and their families. CVN focuses on improving mental health outcomes via a network of outpatient mental health clinics for Veterans and their families in high-need communities, in which trained clinicians deliver holistic, evidence-based care to treat mental health conditions. The network currently has 19 clinics in operation serving Veterans and their families across the country. Learn more about Cohen Veterans Network.

About Endeavors Endeavors is a longstanding national non-profit that provides an array of programs and services in support of children, families, Veterans, and those struggling with mental illness and other disabilities. Endeavors serves vulnerable people in crisis through innovative personalized services. For more information, please visit www.endeavors.org.

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