Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) will affect approximately eight percent of Americans at some time in their lives. And in any given year, roughly five million adults battle with this often disabling biopsychosocial condition.
The direct impact of PTSD is obvious. Those who deal with the disorder on a daily basis experience myriad symptoms such as hyperarousal, nightmares, depression, and emotional distancing.However, PTSD is more than just a disorder of the individual. In many cases, it causes considerable disruption in the family—particularly for children.
Children of parents with PTSD experience their own symptoms associated with the disorder. They are not only confused by their parent’s PTSD symptoms, they also worry about the parent’s well-being.
The child of a person with PTSD may experience feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and helplessness. In extreme cases, he or she may exhibit discipline problems at home and school or withdraw from family and friends. The type, length, and severity of the child’s distress depends on a number of factors including the age of the child, maturity of coping skills, level of the parent’s disability, and social support.
Most clinicians encounter patients with PTSD in their routine clinical practice. Indeed, for some of us, treating adult trauma survivors is the bulk of what we do each day. Whether your caseload is primarily trauma-related or involves only sporadic contact with PTSD, teaching your adult PTSD patients how to help their children cope with this condition—what is, in essence, a disorder of the family—is critical.
Below are a few tips you can pass along to your patients with children.
Teach your patient to listen. The best thing you can do is educate your patient about the power and therapeutic benefit of listening. The child should be able to share his or her thoughts and feelings freely, even if they are negative. An environment of open-mindedness, patience, and non-judgment should be fostered. Being seen as critical or dismissive will cause the child to shut down emotionally. And remind your patient, that under no circumstances, should he or she try to convince the child to feel a certain way. This will invariably bring discourse and progress to a halt.
Help your patient develop age-appropriate examples. The best way to explain a complicated issue to a child is to talk with them at their level. For example, most every kid has been afraid of a monster at some point. Remind the child of what it was like to first “see” a monster under the bed or in the closet. The parent can draw the parallel that this is how he or she felt after exposure to the traumatic event. Also, the comparison of how the child doesn’t like to think about the monster and how the parent doesn’t like to think about the traumatic event can be made to further clarify the example.
Tell the child it is not their fault. Although it may seem obvious to the parent that their child is not to blame, children tend to internalize problems within the family. Therefore, in no uncertain and ambiguous terms, ask the parent to let the child know that the disorder has nothing to do with anything he or she has done or thought. Also, have the parent explain that it’s not the child’s responsibility to fix the parent’s or the family’s problems.
Don’t provide too many details. It is important for the parent to be open and honest with their child, but there is no benefit to discussing the gruesome and frightening aspects of the traumatic event. The younger a child is, the more difficult it is for them to process emotionally charged information. The parent should tell the child only what he or she needs to know. If the child asks difficult and probing questions that the parent isn’t sure should be answered, encourage the parent to defer and bring it up next session.
The psychology of children is complicated. Even with unconditional love, patience, and understanding, your patient’s child may still need professional help. If that is the case, reassure your patient that this is not a failure on his or her part, but an important move in helping their child get better.
This article was adapted from a previous article written by Dr. Moore for his column, “Kevlar for the Mind,” in Military Times.
Image courtesy of TCJ2020 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net