Helping Your Child Understand PTSD
Veteran PTSD

  Ms. Dorothy T.W. Smith received her Masters of Clinical Social Work degree from Tulane University in 1978. She has provided evidence based play therapy with children and psychotherapy with adolescents and adults having various disorders. Ms Smith has dedicated most of her career to helping those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD). 

Let’s say an adult man experienced PTSD from being in military traumas, is married to a woman and they have two children. One child is a teen and the other is much younger. When those children grow up to be adults they describe their child hood as follows: “I didn’t really experience a childhood. It (PTSD) tears the family apart. My dad was always angry. I think he hated me. I hated him. He never played with me. He was really scary at times. He didn’t come to my graduation. I just thought he was mean.”

Often the father with PTSD is angry, defensive and/or withdrawn. It can be really scary to experience the rage some with PTSD have. The nightmares can be the worst part for the Veteran and his wife. Neither one gets much sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to more irritability, memory loss, illness and more. Being on guard, jumpy, hypervigilant are usually symptoms as well. PTSD is a dysfunction. The whole family suffers when one person in the family is dysfunctional. But some say it is a normal result of having gone through abnormal circumstances.

How can one explain PTSD to children? It is often easier to explain it to older children than to the younger ones. When explaining it one needs to use different words according to the age of the children. One tells the teenager in a different way one tells the younger child. It is possible the children and mother need psychotherapy with a therapist who is trained in and understands PTSD and can work well with children and explain it better.

The father can even tell them some of the particulars of the trauma in trying to have them understand why he is angry, confused, suicidal, etc. But do leave out the gory details. For instance, if the children know the father attempted suicide the father could say, “I overreacted so much by yelling and throwing things I thought you would be better off without me.”

One example: to a teen one could say, “It’s hard to understand the complexity of PTSD. Your dad has a lot of different symptoms. His anger can be one but it may really mean that he is scared. I’m sad you think he doesn’t love you. He does.” To the younger one you could say, “I know you get scared when he is mad. He is not really mad at you. He is mad about something bad that happened to him. He does love you.” Often adults don’t understand the dynamics of PTSD either. Watching the pain the whole family goes through can be exhausting and frustrating. It would help to have some understanding of where the PTSD person is coming from.

Rage can mean underlying severe emotional pain. Explain that they can’t “catch” PTSD like one could catch a cold or the measles. One has to experience trauma to get post trauma issues. However, children can get PTSD from a parent (or other) who traumatizes them. Tell the children the father’s behaviors are not their fault. They did not cause the problem and they can’t fix it. Explain that dad worries terribly that something bad could happen to them. That’s why he gets so upset so fast to try to prevent it from happening. When he acts that fast and loud it can be really scary. Tell them PTSD hurts, not like a physical hurt (such as a skinned knee) but emotional, hurtful feelings; that it makes one really mad, sad or scared. He believes it is his duty to protect them from harm. Eg. “Remember that time a driver came down our road so fast it almost hit you? Well, dad grabbed you and probably saved your life. He has been trained to act that fast in other circumstances. But you may not sense the harm that he can.”

If the dad has panic attacks he needs to tell the children (and his wife) he needs a time out. For the younger child he can explain he is really tired like after running a lot, playing hard, getting all sweaty. The parents need to explain to the younger child in a way which the child can relate. For the older child he may get more detailed. For times when dad is withdrawn the mother could say, “You know when he has that look like the 1000 yard stare?” He is remembering some really bad things in the war. He doesn’t tell us because he doesn’t want us to hurt. He is not crazy or dangerous even though it may feel like it. We have to let him hurt sometimes because we can’t cure him. There is no cure for PTSD but people with it can usually get better. At least it helps to understand him better.”

The growing up years are very impressionable years for anyone. One Veteran described his childhood as “tip toeing through the mine field.” Truly, the home can be so dysfunctional it’s like a war zone. These days there is a good deal more of professional help for the whole family of those with PTSD. Most can have a great improvement in their lives at any age. Almost all parents don’t stay up all night trying to figure out how to make their children miserable. They usually do the best they can.