New in VA Caregiving?
When a Child’s Parent has PTSD
Sonya Norman, Ph.D.
Director, PTSD Consultation Program
National Center for PTSD, White River Junction, VT
Assistant Professor, University of California San Diego School of
What is PTSD?
Post-Traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can occur after someone goes
through, sees, or learns about a traumatic event like:
- Combat exposure
- Physical assault
- Child sexual or
- Serious accident
- Natural disaster
- Terrorist attack
Most people have some stress-related reactions after a
traumatic event. If the reactions don’t go away over time and they
disrupt your life, you may have PTSD.
How might a
parent’s PTSD symptoms affect his or her children?
PTSD includes a range of symptoms that can have an impact on family
members. The following are some examples of how certain kinds of PTSD
symptoms can affect children.
People who have PTSD often "re-experience" traumatic events
through memories or dreams. This can happen quickly and can seem to
come out of nowhere. These symptoms often come with strong feelings
of grief, guilt, fear, or anger. Sometimes the experience can be so
strong it may feel like the trauma is happening again. These symptoms
can be scary for the person with PTSD and for their children.
Children may not understand what is happening or why it is happening.
They may worry about their parent or worry that the parent cannot
take care of them.
Because the re-experiencing symptoms are so upsetting, people with
PTSD try not to think about the event. People with PTSD may also try
to avoid places and things that remind them of the trauma. Or they
may not feel like doing things that used to be fun, like going to the
movies or your child’s event. It can also be hard for people with
PTSD to have good feelings. They may feel "cut off" from
family and children. As a result, children may feel that the parent
with PTSD does not care about them.
People with PTSD tend to be anxious and "on edge." With
PTSD, people may have trouble sleeping or paying attention. They may
be grouchy or angry much of the time. They may be easily scared, or
overly worried about their safety or the safety of their loved ones.
It is easy to see how these problems can affect family members. For
example, acting grouchy can make a parent seem mean or angry. Since
they do not understand the symptoms of PTSD, children may wonder
whether the parent loves them.
A parent’s PTSD symptoms are directly linked to their child’s
responses. Children usually respond in certain ways:
- A child might feel
and behave just like their parent as a way of trying to connect
with the parent. The child might show some of the same symptoms
as the parent with PTSD.
- A child may take on
the adult role to fill in for the parent with PTSD. The child acts
too grown-up for his or her age.
- Some children do not
get help with their feelings. This can lead to problems at
school, sadness, anxiety (worry, fear), and relationship
problems later in life.
Children of Veterans with PTSD
Some research shows that children of Veterans with PTSD are more
likely to have problems with behaviors, school, and getting along
with others. Their parents see them as more sad, anxious, aggressive,
and hyper than children of Veterans who do not have PTSD. Some
research has also found that PTSD in a parent is related to violence
in the home and to children acting violent. But it is important to
note that most Veterans have homes without violence.
Parents can help children by using the information provided in this
fact sheet and other resources. Parents or professionals can talk to
family members about the possible impact of a parent’s PTSD on
children. It can help for family members to learn how traumatic
reactions can be passed from parent to child.
A good first step in helping children cope with a parent’s PTSD is to
explain the reasons for the parent’s difficulties. Be careful not to
share too many details of the event(s) with the child. How much you
say depends on your child’s age and maturity level. It is important
to help children see that your symptoms are not their fault. Some
parents want help with what to say to their children, and a counselor
could help with this.
There are many treatment options. Treatment can include individual
treatment for the Veteran or adult with PTSD as well as family
therapy. Family therapy is where members of a family meet together
with a trained clinician to obtain new information and skills to
address difficult situations being faced by the family. Families
often work on improving communication and solving problems so
everyone will benefit.
Children may benefit from their own therapy as well, which might
differ based on the child’s age. Each family is different, and
decisions about what kind of treatment to seek, if any, can be hard.
The most important thing is to help each member of the family,
including the children, say what he or she needs.
More information on this topic is available at http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/children-of-vets-adults-ptsd.asp.