A Survival Guide for Having Military Parents with PTSD

Growing up can be difficult even when your parents are in good mental and physical health. However, when one or both parents are experiencing mental or physical health issues, this can make childhood extra challenging. These challenges are compounded when a parent is an active military service member or veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Learn how to survive your childhood when your parent has military PTSD.

Key takeaways:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms resulting from military combat are sometimes referred to as "shell shock" or "combat stress". These symptoms arise out of experiencing severe trauma from a life-threatening event. Various factors make military service personnel and exposure to its multiple aspects more prone to causing trauma than civilian life.

Such factors include prolonged exposure to combat, being on alert constantly in a state of fear and anxiety, the threat of biological and chemical weapons, and the nature of deployment, which could be difficult to predict in terms of when and how long one will be deployed, which may happen frequently. These stressors can lead to mental distress and disorders, such as PTSD.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder consists of a variety of symptoms that stem from experiencing a single or series of traumatic events. The more serious the traumatic event, the more intense the symptoms of PTSD can be. The time between the traumatic event and the presentation of symptoms varies for each person. However, more immediate symptoms of PTSD include emotional numbness, grief, intrusive thoughts, and social withdrawal. Delayed symptoms include disruptions in behavioral, biological, and psychological functioning, reduced quality of life, and a higher likelihood of having additional medical or mental health issues.

In addition to the symptoms mentioned above, those with PTSD have extreme sensitivities to certain stimuli that remind them of the traumatic experience. These may include loud noises, sudden movements, flashing lights, etc. Such stimuli can trigger flashbacks without warning or control as if it were happening all over again. Flashbacks can be extremely traumatizing to experience and may cause a person to withdraw socially and from all environments and situations where they’re more likely to have a flashback triggered. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are also common symptoms that accompany PTSD.

A person who has served in the military may also tend to behave in both protective and combative ways, which can negatively impact their family. In addition, because those with PTSD are more inclined to avoid going out in public and engaging in social activities, they are not always forthcoming about getting help from a licensed mental health professional. When PTSD is left untreated, it can lead to a variety of additional mental and physical health issues as well.

The biggest military PTSD struggle

One of the biggest struggles military parents with PTSD face is getting help. In addition to the symptoms that accompany PTSD and the tendency to be reluctant to get help, most do not seek help for their condition until they go in for a secondary medical or mental health issue. Such symptoms are often physiological, such as overall pain, sleeping difficulties, tiredness, headaches or migraines, and sexual issues.

These issues, paired with an increase in anger, depression, anxiety, and substance use, are merely the tips of the iceberg, so to speak, that act as red flags to physicians and mental health practitioners as signs of underlying PTSD. At their worst, the symptoms could lead to thoughts of suicide or homicide, psychotic symptoms, such as seeing or hearing things that are not their delusional thoughts, or a difficult time functioning in life on psychological and social levels.

When active service member starts to experience symptoms of PTSD — if they are identified or diagnosed — they are given mental health support through the Department of Defense healthcare system. However, many cases go unnoticed, and others are not given sufficient support to overcome their trauma before they are integrated into civilian life. This makes treating military PTSD a bit more challenging, as it tends to go untreated or only partially treated before a person realizes they need help.

Life with a parent who has PTSD

For parents, it can be difficult to deal with PTSD while having children in the home, as they tend to have high energy, loud voices, may cry, yell, have emotional outbursts, be active when they play, may get into fights with siblings, and are involved with school events that are often crowded. All of these things can be triggers a person with PTSD.

This may cause them to react in ways their children do not understand. It can feel like their parent doesn’t love them anymore or that they are a different person. They may not be able to go to amusement parks or other public places where they would typically go with a parent to have fun, such as the movies or sporting events. This can be very hard for both the parent and the child.

The child may find their life extremely unpredictable, as they may not know what mood or state of mind their parent will be in when they come home after school. If their parent has a flashback can be very scary and difficult to understand. Symptoms of PTSD can sometimes come out of the blue and are unpredictable for all parties involved, so this can cause anxiety and uncertainty in kids. They may also feel like they are missing out on some of the things they wish they could be doing in life if their parent was healthy.

There are three main ways that children tend to react to the trauma of having a parent with PTSD:

  1. Some children will mirror the PTSD symptoms and behaviors of their parent as a way to try to connect with them.
  2. Some will end up taking on a parental role and acting more mature than they should for their age as means of making up for their parent who is struggling.
  3. Others will internalize what is going on and refuse to seek help with their feelings, which can lead to acting out and expressing them externally; causing issues with school, social interactions, and experiencing prolonged periods of sadness and anxiety.

Surviving your childhood

If you are the offspring of a parent with military PTSD, it’s important to know that they do still love you, it’s just difficult for them to function in life due to the trauma they’ve experienced. They may not always know how to cope with their symptoms or behave in the ways they used to, or in socially acceptable ways. At their worst, military parents with PTSD may become violent in the home, and this can be traumatizing.

This is one of the reasons children of parents with military PTSD can develop symptoms of PTSD themselves. If there is violence in your home, it is important to seek help and support to keep everyone safe. Once everyone is safe, it’s important to engage in therapy, and encourage your parent to seek both a combination of individual therapy, family therapy, couples therapy (if needed), and parenting support services.

Having a parent with military PTSD can be scary and stressful. As difficult as this may be, it’s important to ensure you are safe and taking care of your feelings and emotions so that you do not have to suffer the same types of symptoms that your parent is dealing with. Help and support are available, and parents with PTSD can learn to manage their symptoms and recover from PTSD with extensive therapy, time, support, and consistency.

It is also possible for them to improve their parenting skills so they can be there for you when you need them most. Regardless of this, however, it's important for you to speak with a trusted adult or therapist about what is going on during this time and to know that it is not your fault, you didn't do anything wrong to cause the flashbacks or make anything worse, and you do not have to suffer the same fate.

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