Parenting is stressful even under perfect circumstances. It becomes even more stressful to the family unit when the parent suffers from mental health issues such as PTSD. Growing up with a parent that suffers from PTSD can be equally if not more harrowing because of the negative impact it can have on the emotional development of the child. Many people make the mistake of thinking that only the sufferer of mental health issues is affected when in fact it impacts the whole family unit.
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that affects people after they experience a traumatic event like abuse, a natural disaster, or a war. They have anxiety and flashbacks of the event, which makes it difficult to recover. These people also have insomnia and depression as a result. The symptoms can be delayed by up to six months after the event. People who show symptoms early on — within three months — improve much more quickly. The disorder can have long-term effects and be life-threatening in some cases if left untreated.
PTSD is most often associated with soldiers after they come from a war zone. In recent years, it’s been shown that non-veterans can also develop PTSD without being exposed to war. Anybody who experienced trauma can develop it, including children. There are many children being raised in war zones. Many have been abused either sexually, verbally, or physically. Others have experienced disasters or witnessed traumatic events such as the death of a loved one.
PTSD is triggered by some traumatic events. The event can be something that the individual witnessed, something they experienced, or something that occurred to someone close to them. Examples of such events are emotional abuse or bullying, sexual assault, physical abuse, and neglect, as well as manmade tragedies such as bombings or shootings. The person may have survived a natural disaster such as an earthquake or flood. They may also have had a serious accident or an invasive medical procedure at a young age. It may affect any child under the age of 18, and without the right support, it may turn into a chronic disorder.
There are many risk factors involved, since not all who experience or witness a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Risk factors include the proximity and relationship to the event, how severe it was, and its duration. Risks of PTSD increase if the event is recurrent. Other factors include how resilient the child is, what coping skills they learned and practiced, and their entourage. Children with fewer support resources from family and the rest of the community are at higher risk of developing PTSD. Studies have shown that PTSD affects girls more than boys, and more than 4% of children living in the U.S. have been diagnosed with PTSD.
Growing up with a parent who has PTSD can cause what’s called inherited PTSD in a child. While the child did not experience the trauma that caused the parent’s PTSD, they experience the difficulty of dealing with that parent.
PTSD, like many mental disorders, is individualized. Symptoms may vary, but some common ones will help identify and diagnose the disorder. The most common and biggest symptoms are the reactions to triggers. Sufferers will experience emotional, mental, and physical distress when they encounter a situation similar to or that reminds them of the traumatic event.
Others repeatedly relive the event in nightmares or vivid recollections during the day. They may experience sleep disturbances, insomnia, and depression. Some are always on edge and easily scared and startled. Some will have problems connecting with others and showing affection. They may be violent or have anger issues, or they might experience problems with concentration. Some may avoid similar situations or places so they don’t relive the experience. Some may start to lose touch with reality and become wrapped up in their mind. Many will also have physical symptoms such as headaches and pain while showing emotional symptoms.
While these symptoms are easy for the adult mind to digest, it isn’t as easy for a child. When a parent lashes out at a child, the child often thinks it’s their fault the parent acts this way. The child very often internalizes this behavior and may live in a fearful state because they don’t want to do anything that may trigger the parent to lash out. These children often try to find ways to soothe and appease the parent, which may in turn create an abusive and codependent relationship.
Symptoms of PTSD manifest in individuals in different ways. Some sufferers will withdraw and be absent from important life events. The lack of affection can be just as damaging as being physically abused. The child may grow up feeling they are unlovable and don’t deserve to be treated well. Growing up with this type of trauma can certainly create a separate set of issues for the child.
An individual will be diagnosed with PTSD if the symptoms last longer than one month and are affecting their life and level of functioning. Once diagnosed, the doctor and patient will discuss and choose the best option that fits their needs. Treatment plans include cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. In therapy, they’ll learn healthy coping skills and techniques to manage anxiety. In some cases, the doctor may prescribe an antidepressant or antianxiety medication. Treatment works better if there’s a strong support system.
Treatment centers such as FHE Health are equipped to help the family as a unit deal with PTSD and the effect it has on the family. Parenting with PTSD doesn’t have to result in bad experiences. You can live a healthy and happy life. You can resolve the trauma that’s at the root of your PTSD. It’s not too late to rebuild the emotional health of your family unit. The first step is to reach out for help.