FamilyOfaVet - Real world info about PTSD, TBI, & life after combat
FamilyOfaVet - Real World info about PTSD, TBI, & life after combat.

Explaining Your PTSD to Your Child

Regardless of your situation, your children continue to need you as a source of physical
and emotional safety and support. By focusing on their core needs you can significantly
reduce the impact your
PTSD will have on them, while you’re finishing your treatment.

Parental PTSD Affects Entire Families

People come to PTSD in many ways. Some acquire it abruptly as the result of a traumatic
event, while others may have had it for years, but only found out about it recently.
Whatever the case, when you become aware that you have Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder, if you have children in your home you have more to deal with than you might
think. PTSD changes how you respond to other people and this can bewilder and even
frighten children.

At the earliest point you can, it’s likely to be beneficial for you to talk to them about your
PTSD. However, one doesn’t talk to children in the same way as one talks adults. With
regard to PTSD, here are some things to consider.

Your Message Must Be Emotion-Centered

Remember that the younger a child is the more they FEEL you, rather than HEAR you.
With all children and many adolescents, you will do well to pay considerable attention to
your “body language”, to how you touch them and how you move, to the quality and speed
and volume of your voice, and so on. Again, the younger the child, the more this sort of
thing is THE message they will remember. In all cases, if there is a conflict between what
you say and what your body and voice says, it is the latter that will be heard. So, always
give priority to HOW you way what you say, first of all. After that, WHAT you say matters,
but not as much.

What You Can Say

Admit that you can be a problem for them

Here are some things you might say to your child, slowly and calmly. (Make changes, as
needed, to adapt this to children of different ages. Remember that children often benefit
from repetition. Say these sort of things as often as you think they need to hear them.)

    “I know you worry sometimes because I don’t feel good. Sometimes I get cranky, or
    get really quiet, and I can’t help it. I know that this can worry you. I don’t want you to
    be worried about me. I'm OK, and I’m getting better, and I’m going to take care of
    you no matter what happens."

Speak to their fears about losing their parent

Children come into this world never having known anything but dependent relationship.
That’s “normal” for them. It takes a while for them to realize that they could lose their
parent, and thus their essential safety and support. That realization, when it comes to
them, is likely to be very frightening, and one sees this when they show separation anxiety.

Losing their parent is, for most children, the worst thing imaginable. When your
distances you from your child, it becomes much easier to for them to imagine their greatest
fear. You need to try to quiet this fear. There is no doubt that excessive, and especially
prolonged, experience of this fear is traumatizing to children. Move their experience in the
other direction. Say something like this to them:

    “I want you always to remember that even if I’m not feeling good, I’m still your
    mother/father, and I still care very much about you, and love you, and want you to
    feel safe and comfortable.”

Notice that the focus is on the child’s feelings, and the central concern in this statement is
child’s safety and welfare – something that necessarily is always their first concern.
They simply don’t yet know how to exist apart from their parental caregiver. As adults, it
can be hard for us to remember what this is like for children, to remember the sense of
absolute dependence that dominates their lives. The central focus of adolescence is the
ending of this dependence, of course. But until that time, they really, really need to feel
secure about your presence in their life.

Encourage Them to Move Toward You

Your child needs to hear that you are available to them. This may be hard for you for you
to accomplish, if you’re “triggering” a lot. This is why learning symptom management is so
important, while your healing is progressing.

    “If I’m not feeling good, and you need me just to listen to you, or just to be with you, I
    want you to know that you can come to me and tell me this. I will listen to you.”

In talking with them, seek to correct their fear-distorted view of reality

    “I also want you to know that when I don’t feel good it will last for only feel bad for a
    little time. I will get better after some time passes. I know it can be hard for you to
    wait, but just remember, I will feel better soon. And while I’m waiting, you can come
    and be with me quietly, and maybe do some drawing, or reading, or play with toys,
    next to me. If you’re here, it’ll help me feel better. I’d really like that.”

This is another message about how you’re still their parent, and that you value them, even
if you’re distracted and not feeling well. It’s central intent is to calm and reassure – to
promote a sense of their being safe in spite of their seeing fear and disturbance in their
parent from time to time. Also suggested is the idea that together, you and your child and
get through tough times. That should be reassuring to hear.

The Importance of a Calm, Constructive Attitude

There are countless other reassuring, calming, comforting things you might say to your
child or adolescent, and you can probably come up with a number of them on your own. In
general, you can hardly do no wrong if you emphasize (a) calmness and ease in how you
say what you say, and (b) the positive, constructive aspects of them and of you.

Much of this may well not be easy for you, as a person with
PTSD. Know that in advance.
Then try to achieve this attitude anyway. It’s good for them, and it’s definitely good for you.

Don’t Abandon Your Job As a Parent

A simple but powerful thing to remember about working with children is that they WANT you
to manage significant parts of their life, because they know they cannot. In adolescence,
they will challenge you on this more than in earlier ages, but when you stand your ground
in a reasonable way you assure them that they really DO still have a parent, and they don’t
have to try to adult before they really can be.

When you set reasonable, age-appropriate, and reasonable boundaries, you show them
that you can be trusted, and this is critically important if you have Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder, because when you’re feeling the disturbance natural to the disorder you’re
simply not going to look to them as reliable as you might otherwise look. Yet, they
undeniably NEED you to be reliable – because they not yet adults.

External Structure Has Great Value – So Keep It

Remember that children derive a sense of safety from having a reliable structure in their
everyday life: regular bedtimes, regular bedtime rituals, regular wakeup rituals, regular
breakfasts, regular birthdays, and so on. Adults also benefit from this, but with children in
distressed families it becomes much more important. Try to see that this structure is a part
of their lives.

The Most Helpful Thing You Can Do

It’s simple: get competent psychotherapy... (or at the very least some kind of PTSD

by Tom Cloyd, MS, MA – Counselor / Psychotherapist – Bellingham, Washington
(360) 920-1226 – email: tc (AT) - website:

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