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

Secondary PTSD in Children



Thirty-nine percent of those who live with a veteran who is struggling with post-traumatic
stress disorder will develop Secondary PTSD (also known as STS or Secondary
Traumatic Stress).  Be on the look out for symptoms of STS in your child and if you notice
any of these behaviors, seek help as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, if left untreated,
Secondary PTSD can negatively impact the rest of your child’s life!

Signs & Symptoms of Secondary PTSD to Watch for in Children:

  • Extreme mood changes, irritability;
  • Depression and anxiety;
  • Losing creativity and interest in activities they would typically enjoy;
  • Loneliness, withdrawal and pulling away;
  • Acting out more than a child should at their age;
  • Fighting and trying to harm siblings;
  • Self-destruction or destruction in property;
  • Stating or acting as they are to blame for a parent’s PTSD outburst;
  • Stating or feeling as though a parent no longer cares for or loves them;
  • Becoming numb towards family, friends, and things they use to take pleasure in;
  • Copying a parent’s attitude and actions in an attempt to reconnect with their parent;
  • Attempting to take on more than they should at their age;
  • Trying to fill the void in the family or a take a parent’s place;
  • A drop in grades, or failing in school when they use to have strong grades;
  • Hard time making new friends and keeping old friends;
  • Suddenly getting into an unusual amount of trouble and taking place in violent acts.





How PTSD Impacts Children
(some information adapted from an article originally found at: http://www.ptsd.va.
gov/public/pages/children-of-vets-adults-ptsd.asp)

How might a parent's PTSD symptoms affect his or her children?

Your loved one’s PTSD symptoms can impact your child in a vast variety of ways.  Here
are some PTSD symptoms and how they can affect your family:

Re-experiencing symptoms

It is a traumatic thing for a child to witness a full out “flashback”. Younger children will most
likely experience fear and an extreme lack of understanding.  In older children it can
create a need to “protect” the PTSD parent and other parent.  A flashback can cause a
variety of feelings in children ranging from anger at something they don’t understand or at
the parent’s actions to confusion because they cannot understand what is happening or
why.  Aside from attempting to shield your children from these episodes, make sure you
talk with them later as a couple.  Tell them how much you love them and that you’re sorry
they had to see that.  Make certain you answer their questions honestly and remind them
how special they really are to you and highlight anything positive they did (i.e. an older
child getting a younger sibling out of the way).

Avoidance and numbing symptoms

When a PTSD veteran begins avoiding their normal activities and/or experiencing a lack
of emotion, children often misinterpret this that their parent no longer cares about them or
their activities.  They are no longer able to be the center of their PTSD parent’s world
because their parent is pulling away from them.  They don’t understand why and they’re
often confused and frustrated at their parent’s behavior.  Some veterans will unknowingly
begin to “play favorites” because one child’s personality or activities are more difficult to
handle than another’s.  While it’s hard to always “double down” as the extra parent, try to
mitigate favoritism as much as possible.  Do your best to keep an open line of
communication with your kids.  Even something as simple as a note in the lunchbox saying
something special between you can mean the world during these difficult times.

Avoidance can also lead to avoiding special events in your children’s lives.  Again, the
best strategy is to keep things as even as possible.  Keep in mind that if your veteran
went through a particularly hard time during one phase of one child’s life and then is
better when another child hits that phase to double down on the one who might have
missed out.  Guilt and anxiety can become prevalent in the other child.  Keep your eyes
and ears open for sullen behavior and the infamous “It’s not fair!” because they’re right –
it isn’t.


Hyperarousal symptoms

When your veteran is struggling with this, your children feel it on an intense, close level
that is difficult to explain.  Young children will sense the anxiety, “grouchiness”, and hyper-
sensitivity that comes and goes in waves.  They may even start considering the two
different “personalities” as Nice Daddy/Mean Daddy and may even name them
accordingly.  Older children will sometimes exhibit the same behaviors or, in some cases
particularly with teens, act out even more in an attempt to get away.  They may spend
ever increasing amounts of time outside of the home in an attempt to avoid their PTSD
parent.

What can you do?

Establish that your home is a safe place to talk about PTSD and how it affects your
family.  Your family is the BEST place to talk because you’re going through this together.  
Let your kids know that it’s okay to ask questions and that you will help them find answers.

Be honest – within reason.  Shield younger children from facts and symptoms as
necessary but don’t lie to them.  If Dad’s at the treatment center getting help for his PTSD,
don’t say he’s on vacation.  Say that Daddy is sick and at the hospital getting better.  It
never helps anyone if you lie, but a little sugar coating won’t kill you either!

Sometimes the best answer is, “I love you too much to share that with you right now.”  Kids
never need to know the full gory details about anything.  It’s our job as parents to shelter
them.  

When a child begins trying to emulate the PTSD veteran in an attempt to “be closer to
them”, talk about how it makes them feel when that behavior is done to them.  Sometimes
just seeing it from the recipient’s shoes is more than enough to ward off future poor
behavioral patterns.

If you think your child needs help, PLEASE get it for them.  Don’t try to hide your family
situation under a bush when it contains an elephant, a giraffe, and two llamas.  You won’t
succeed and you’ll only make the situation worse.














[A more detailed, "scholarly" version of a study by Dr. Jennifer Price on Children and
PTSD is also available at
http://www.ptsd.va.
gov/professional/pages/pro_child_parent_ptsd.asp]

Other Pages on FamilyOfaVet.com dealing with PTSD and Children:

Stress & Secondary PTSD in Children

Helping Children Understand PTSD

Explaining Your PTSD to Your Child


Other Links About Secondary PTSD (STS) and Children:

How PTSD Affects Our Children (an article on The Veteran's Voice)

PTSD & Children of Survivors (from the Sidran Institute) - this is an excerpt from the book
Vietnam Wives by Aphrodite Matsakis
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