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Understanding PTSD and How It May Affect Your Parenting 

Understanding PTSD and How It May Affect Your Parenting 

What is PTSD?

There are many challenges people face while parenting. Sometimes, parenting can be hard due to the parent’s experiences before welcoming their new additions. These challenges can be even more difficult for those who have lived through traumatic events. When people experience or witness a traumatic event, a series of events, or a set of circumstances it can trigger a psychiatric disorder called Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).1 An individual may experience this as a variety of symptoms that may affect one’s well-being.1 PTSD is often very intense. If left untreated, trauma can cause severe distress that can be debilitating.  

Symptoms of this disorder can show up in several ways:  

  • Intrusion – repeated thoughts like involuntary memories, distressing dreams, or flashbacks of the traumatic event.1
  • Avoidance – avoiding reminders of the initial event. This may include people, places, activities, objects, and situations that might trigger memories.1  
  • Changes in Cognition/Mood – Forgetting details from the initial event or negative thoughts and feelings can distort one’s perception of themselves, others, the cause, or the consequences of the traumatic event, leading to misplaced blame.1
  • Changes in Arousal and Reactivity – This can consist of an increase in irritability, angry outbursts, and reckless or self-destructive behaviors.1

Although not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, it is very common. It is estimated that 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.1 While PTSD can occur in anyone, women are twice as likely as men to have it.1 African American, Latinx and Native American/Alaska Native populations have higher rates of PTSD than other groups. It is possible for symptoms to end completely with support or treatment.  

Treatment needs can vary. While some can see improvement through the help of friends and family, others may need professional help.1 The sooner treatment begins, the better the chance for recovery. The most common types of treatment are therapy and medication.1  

Therapy 

  1. Cognitive Processing Therapy – a cognitive behavioral therapy focusing on changing the negative emotions and beliefs created by trauma. Therapists work to help patients confront distressing memories.1
  2. Prolonged Exposure Therapy – uses repeated exposure to the trauma in a controlled setting to help confront fears related to the root issue and develop healthy coping mechanisms.1
  3. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – a compilation of trauma-sensitive interventions. Mainly intended for children or adolescents.1
  4. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – a psychotherapy technique administered over 3 months. This type of therapy helps to reprocess the memory of trauma.1
  5. Group Therapy – encourages survivors of similar events to share experiences in a comfortable, non-judgmental setting. Hearing similarities in responses helps to normalize reactions and emotions.1

Medication 

Medication can be used to help manage symptoms and allow for more effective participation in psychotherapy.1 Antidepressants, specifically Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and Serotonin-Norepinephrine Re-uptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) are used to treat core symptoms. They can be used alone or in combination with psychotherapy.1  

How does PTSD impact parents?

Traumatic events can drastically change a person’s behavior and how they interact with others. People who have PTSD often “re-experience” traumatic events through memories or dreams at a moment’s notice.2 Those with PTSD are often overly worried and tend to be anxious and “on edge”.2 PTSD typically comes with strong feelings that can sometimes scare children. It’s often hard for them to understand what is happening and why. This confusion can create undue stress and worry. Parents naturally want to protect their kids, so parents with PTSD often try to suppress or avoid confronting their trauma.  

Children may respond to PTSD symptoms by imitating the behaviors portrayed by their parents. Sometimes, this is an effort for the child to connect. Children may also assume the role of the adult in lieu of the full presence of their parent.2  

PTSD is often seen in veterans once they’ve returned from war. In these situations, children of veterans with PTSD are more likely to have behavioral problems and challenges getting along with others.2 Children of combat veterans often exhibit more anxiety and feelings of sadness than children of non-combat veterans.2 Similar to the parent with PTSD, the child can become distracted by stress caused by worrying about their parent. These changes can last for years. It’s important to recognize these changes in children to help them address symptoms early on.  

A Brighter Future

Starting conversations early that explain the reasons for the parent’s behavior is a helpful tool to reduce PTSD’s impact.2 If your family or a family you know is dealing with PTSD, take steps to identify your support system. Living with PTSD does not have to be permanent.3 Finding professional help, a therapy or support group, and open communication among family and friends have proven to be very helpful. Remember to be patient with yourself and your child through this process.3 Living with PTSD is hard. Parents may struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, or fear. These feelings can make it hard to be vulnerable and transparent with children. Demonstrating emotional intelligence will help to model positive behaviors. This can look like asking questions about how the child feels or affirming the child’s experience later. Here are some prompts you can use to start the conversation:  

  • When that happened, what was it like for you?3 
  • How did you feel?3 
  • I know I was very upset last night, I wasn’t mad at you. I was feeling overwhelmed and should have taken a break rather than be upset with you.3  

 

Written by: Candace Page, MPH 

Content Expertly Reviewed by: Dr. Krista Mincey, MPH, Dr.PH, MCHES 

 

References 
  1. Monica Taylor-Desir. (2022). American Psychiatry Association. What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd 
  1. National Center for PTSD. (n.d.) U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. When a Child’s Parent has PTSD. When a Child’s Parent has PTSD – PTSD: National Center for PTSD (va.gov) 
  1. Coherence Associates. (2023). Parenting with PTSD: How Can Your Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms Impact Your Children. Parenting with PTSD: How Can Your Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms Impact Your Children — Coherence Associates 
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