Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) relive a traumatic event long after the experience is over, finding it difficult to stop thinking about it and becoming consumed with fear that the trauma will happen again. As the cliché goes, a person with PTSD is “waiting for the shoe to drop” or expecting the worst. A helicopter flying overhead may evoke traumatic memories of a battle that killed close friends. The rescue of a child from a home engulfed in flames may cause flashbacks and trouble sleeping. A sexual assault may prompt hyper-vigilance in intimate situations with a partner who loves and cherishes you.
Anyone who experiences disturbing and traumatic events can have PTSD. It can develop in people who experience serious automobile accidents, natural disasters, physical abuse, sexual assaults, terrorist acts, war, and situations where they had a close brush with death. The suffering can be immense for the affected individual, but it can also impact their immediate family members, sometimes leaving deep wounds and secondary trauma. As is often the case when a parent has untreated symptoms, for example, the disorder can create tremendous pain and baggage for children. This article will take a closer look at precisely how a parent or close family member’s PTSD affects the family, especially children.
The Effect of PTSD on Family Members
Traumatic experiences and the symptoms of PTSD they trigger typically impact not just the individual but their close loved ones also. Family members often experience the daily effects of the disorder, which can be relentless. Anyone who cares for or closely associates with the person suffering from PTSD can be at risk of secondary PTSD. Being around a person with PTSD can keep loved ones on edge, as they can never know what to expect. The individual with PTSD may seem content one minute and be aggressive and out of control the next.
When a Parent Has PTSD
When a parent has PTSD, that can have a profound and lasting impact on a child. Childhood is a time of curiosity, learning, and also confusion. It is natural for children to look to their parents for guidance and protection. When a small child is frightened, they may run to a parent and raise their arms, hoping the parent will pick them up and shield them from danger. However, if an event that triggers fear in the child affects the parent in a manner that keeps them from responding to the child’s anxiety, the child can feel confused, unloved, and not know what to expect from the parent. PTSD can leave a parent unable to respond to a child’s needs or cause them to react in frightening ways, such as being verbally or physically aggressive.
Recognizing the Impact of a Parent’s PTSD
A home in which an individual (and particularly a parent) has PTSD can be an environment of uncertainty. Children of people with PTSD can develop issues resulting from exposure to angry outbursts, fears, and the parent’s inability to form a nurturing parent-child relationship. Children in families affected by PTSD never know when something will trigger a traumatic memory, so they may live life expecting something terrible to happen at any time.
Young children who cannot understand why a parent behaves strangely may feel rejected and insecure. PTSD can be scary for a child when a parent becomes violent during a PTSD event. Parents with PTSD may not be able to take their children to places that many families enjoy, like amusement parks, fireworks displays, and movies, because noises and loud pops may lead to a PTSD episode. A child may associate a parent’s reluctance to do fun things with not loving them.
Children whose parents have PTSD may have difficulty with relationships. They may act out in school and be aggressive or withdrawn. Children may seek comfort by turning to peers who use alcohol or drugs or are involved in risky behaviors. They may experience difficulty concentrating on school work and suffer from sleep deprivation when a parent with PTSD behaves erratically when the family is trying to sleep.
The Importance of Acknowledging and Addressing the Baggage
Confronting the feelings that originate from living with a parent with PTSD can be healing. It is not the fault of the person suffering from PTSD, but living with the constant mental stress of someone afflicted by past traumas can create a toxic environment for family members. A child may become afraid of their parent. Some children take on the role of the adult, feeling they must take care of the parent. Acknowledging that PTSD is what created the toxic environment can be a step toward healing and forgiveness.
Generational Trauma of PTSD
PTSD’s effects on family can be far-reaching. When an individual experiences trauma, it can impact the family tree. People who are members of groups who have been abused, exploited, and mistreated can experience trauma so significantly that it can affect how future generations respond to societal pressures. In studying how PTSD affects families, some researchers have found that generational trauma can lead to genetic changes that affect the immune system and the brain.
Parents who endure traumatic events like sexual abuse may struggle to protect their children from the same trauma. A parent who did not receive support and treatment for the traumatic event may refuse to acknowledge a child’s experience or ignore the impact. Unfortunately, failing to confront traumatic events starts a vicious cycle where generations suffer from PTSD because they have learned to deny and suppress their pain rather than seek help.
Working through generational trauma or PTSD includes sharing past abuses and experiences with family members. Adult children of trauma survivors can refrain from passing fear, insecurities, and mistrust to their children when they understand the origin of those feelings. Working with a counselor or therapist can help generational trauma survivors develop a new and healthy perspective and leave behind the thinking that they must suffer in silence.
Overcoming the Impact of Living with a Person with PTSD
A child who grows up with a parent with PTSD can experience secondary PTSD, so self-care is essential. Growing up with a parent with PTSD may cause a child to view the conduct as normal. Identifying with the parent and adopting their behaviors can lead to emotional issues in adulthood and the inability to develop healthy social relationships. It is vital for a child who has lived with PTSD for years to address their emotional health. Seeking counseling or therapy can help with stress management and coping strategies to heal from years of traumatic experiences.
How Treatment Can Break the Generational Cycle of PTSD
Parents with PTSD may find it difficult to follow through with recommendations to help them deal with their trauma. Others may do their best to work through their trauma with professional help. A parent’s inability to follow through with treatment should not impact the adult child’s desires to overcome their secondary PTSD struggles. When the parent of an adult child is still struggling with PTSD, there is hope. A child can encourage the parent to participate in family therapy to address issues, promote communication, and possibly lead to some breakthroughs that can prevent PTSD from impacting future generations.