How PTSD Affects Our Children
By Susan Barrera
If we believe that living with PTSD doesn’t affect our children, we are just fooling ourselves. I was in such a bad place myself, that I couldn’t see the kinds of problems our son had. I had to get really close to a breakdown and find help and get better myself before I was able to see it in my child. PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, doesn’t just affect the veteran and their spouse. It affects the whole family. When we raise our children in a home where there is turmoil, constant tension, and anger; it changes who that child is. Who he or she could have been. They see that look of rage in their father’s eyes and they don’t know if their father will hurt (or kill) them or their mother. They usually know that their father has killed and they never quite feel safe.
As mothers, we are usually very much in the middle. We do whatever we can to shield our children from their father’s often un-called-for and unreasonable rages. The wife and children are usually blamed for the anger that the veteran experiences. We get to believe that if we just tried harder, or behaved better, Dad wouldn’t be so angry all the time. We spend endless amounts of time trying to defend ourselves, and justify and explain that we didn’t mean what we said or did the way it was taken.
We imagine that if the fights don’t take place in front of the children that they don’t know and that they are not affected by them. How can they not feel the tension in the home and be affected by it? The heavy silences and extended periods of angry isolation are just as hard on them as the fights and the raging. They often grow up feeling unloved, ignored, abandoned and rejected by their fathers even when they grow up in the same house with them. And they believe that somehow it is their fault.
When our children are young, they accept the family situation as normal. But as the children get older, and are exposed to other families, they don’t understand why their dad doesn’t act like other fathers. Why they shout and curse at other drivers, and embarrass them in public. Or why their dad won’t leave the house and seems determined not to have any fun. And never seems to want anyone else in the family to have fun either. The children will often be reluctant to invite their friends home, because they never know what kind of mood Dad will be in, or what harmless remark or action will set him off.
The children can develop PTSD of their own. They become traumatized by the situation in the home and by witnessing traumatic events, like their fathers’ suicide attempts. The drinking and drugging that the vets sometimes use to self-medicate also affect their children.
Our children often grow up developing secondary PTSD too, and will show symptoms similar to their fathers’. Our children can often have lasting problems from living this way. They will sometimes grow up unable to cope with the anger of others, and develop physical pain when around other angry people. Physical symptoms of frequent illness of all sorts also often show up in the children. They often develop problems with self-esteem and self-confidence and grow up timid and shy and fearful. They can develop an over-attachment to their mothers and fear that something will happen to her and they will be left in the care of their scary fathers. They can feel as though they don’t have a father if their dad cannot make himself spend time with them, or attend their activities. They will sometimes have problems with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, self-mutilation and suicidal thoughts.
Sometimes they will identify with their mothers and try to protect her from their fathers’ anger. Some of them will have conflicting loyalties, siding with the father against the mother and vice versa. Or sometimes they will learn to treat her the same way their father does: they learn to be angry and hostile and aggressive. They learn to intimidate to get others to back down and to get their own way. They often have trouble maintaining friendships and relationships, and frequently act out in school.
Psychological help is often necessary to help our troubled children understand what their fathers’ PTSD is about, and how it affected him and how it affects them and the whole family.
There is a wonderful article for children by Patience Mason called “Why is Daddy Like He Is?” It is available
Patience Mason also has invaluable PTSD information at
There is also an excellent chapter on PTSD and Children in
“Vietnam Wives” by Aphrodite Matsakis.
If you would like to ask questions of Sue and the members of their PTSD Support Group located in Albuquerque, NM who have been, or are in a relationship with PTSD husbands, please join our online forum