By Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can happen to any person who has experienced a trauma that felt life-threatening and caused considerable distress. It is not caused by any personal deficiency or weakness, and it can happen to anyone. In the United States, approximately seven to eight percent of the population will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives, and approximately 8 million adults will struggle with PTSD symptoms in any given year. These numbers are higher for individuals who have served in active-duty military.1

If you struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, you might experience the following symptoms:

  • Avoidance Symptoms: A strong desire to stay away from anything that reminds you of the trauma, or avoiding thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma
  • Re-experiencing Symptoms: Flashbacks, dreams or strongly intrusive thoughts or memories of the trauma, especially when you do not wish to
  • Mood and Cognition Changes: Difficulty remembering the traumatic event clearly, feelings of guilt and self-blame, mood swings, negative thinking and/or loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Reactivity and Nervous System Arousal: You may feel tense or on edge, have difficulty sleeping, startle easily or become easily irritable2

As you can imagine, these symptoms impact every aspect of a person’s life. This includes parenting. PTSD can impact the relationship you have with your children in many ways. Empower yourself with information and learn more about your treatment options. PTSD is treatable, and there are ways to heal your entire family through this process.

PTSD Affects the Relationship You Have with Your Children

Military dad holding sons handIntrusive memories of a trauma may strike without warning. These memories, flashbacks and nightmares often cause intense emotional reactions that are difficult to hide. In some cases, flashbacks can be so strong that a person might believe the trauma is reoccurring. This can be frightening for children to see, and young children, especially, may not understand what is happening and assume something is dangerous or wrong when they are actually safe.

PTSD memories are uncomfortable — it’s natural to try to avoid memories, places, people or things that remind you of your trauma. Sadly, this often keeps parents from wanting to participate in fun activities with kids, such as events that involve crowds or loud noises. The avoidance symptoms of PTSD may limit you from having a lot of fun with your family.

Sometimes PTSD symptoms are so uncomfortable that parents try to numb their emotions just to get through each day. Drug use, alcohol consumption, overeating, Internet and cell phone dependence and even gambling may all be avoidance behaviors. These are only temporary fixes — and they take you away from precious years with your children.

Perhaps you are hyper-alert and irritable because of constant anxiety associated with PTSD. Parenting is truly a challenging job, and even parents who are in the best of health have bad days. PTSD may cause you to be overly strict with your child, and it may increase your own irritability and anger during normal events. You shouldn’t have to tolerate parenting; you should be able to enjoy it.

Sadly, hyperarousal and irritability can sometimes lead to family violence. Arguments and even physical altercations may be more common in households with PTSD. If you’ve lost your temper too much, it may be time to seek help.3

Without treatment, these symptoms of hyperarousal and irritability can lead to a cycle of guilt and shame, followed by an ever-distant relationship with your loved ones. Thankfully this can be treated, and many families are able to recover fully.

Symptoms to Look for in Your Child: How Children Respond to Parental PTSD

Children react differently than adults, and each child is unique. Children may respond to parental PTSD in a number of ways, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. You may see social and behavioral problems, depression or anxiety, or you may see the following in your child:

  • The “emotionally uninvolved” child may withdraw and seek little help from the adults in his life. He may isolate himself and might experience problems with anxiety, worry, fears, depression, and relationships at school.
  • The “rescuer” child may act older than his age and try to fill the adult role of helping the affected parent, parenting other children, and trying to become perfect to heal and please the parents.
  • The “over-identified” child might begin to behave like the affected parent. This child may begin to show symptoms of PTSD himself, often in a misguided effort to connect with or relate to his parent. He may begin to have irrational fears, experience nightmares about his parent’s trauma, or exhibit irritability and hyperarousal.3,4

Don’t Give Up Hope. You and Your Child Can Heal.

The most troubling problem with being a parent who has PTSD is the cycle of detachment you may feel. It’s frustrating to struggle each day to be a positive, healthy parent when you have PTSD. You may feel more distant from your children, and then feel hopeless or helpless to fix it all. Please, hang in there — family counseling and treatment can make a huge difference. You can feel like a healthy parent, and family programs can help your child emerge more confident and with a greater understanding of PTSD and psychology that will help him for a lifetime.

It is vital to seek treatment as soon as possible. If your child is already experiencing symptoms, these issues will continue into adolescence and adulthood without treatment. The sooner you can heal yourself, the sooner your child can also heal.3

Help Your Children Understand PTSD

The best way to talk about PTSD with your child is with the support of an experienced counselor. A therapist or counselor can help you explain the situation and find healing together in the most age-appropriate way. Parents can help by learning all they can about PTSD and seeking treatment for themselves through individual counseling.

There are some points to consider when you talk with your child about PTSD, including:

  • Do not attempt to fully explain your trauma to your child. Many children are not old enough to fully comprehend the trauma you have experienced, and it may be overwhelming. You can, however, talk in a general way about what PTSD is and what the symptoms include.5 (This is where a counselor is very helpful.)
  • Listen to your child. Your child may have feelings about the situation that he is not able to describe or explain. Simply listen, and empathize with your child’s feelings. Remember that the PTSD is the problem, and don’t take what your child says personally. Often, children simply lack the vocabulary needed to explain the difference between you and your PTSD. Trust that your child loves you, and see what common ground you can find.
  • Ensure that the child does not blame himself. Although it may not be logical and they may not admit it, many children blame themselves for their parents’ issues. Let your child know that this situation is not his or her fault. Repeat this message as needed.
  • It’s OK to take a break. Perhaps you don’t have the answers right away. Maybe your child is asking you about PTSD while you are feeling triggered or having a flashback. It is totally OK to tell your child that you need a break, and that you will talk about things later. Sometimes, it’s easier to talk to your child about these complicated issues through written letters, in a counseling session or with the help of a friend or spouse.

Valley Hospital offers dedicated programming to help military families. Contact us to find out more about the best treatment options for you and your family.


1How Common is PTSD?” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, October 3, 2016.

2Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, Accessed January 24, 2018.

3 Price, Jennifer.When a Child’s Parent has PTSD.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, February 23, 2016.

4 Creech, Suzannah K. and Gabriela Misca.Parenting with PTSD: A Review of Research on the Influence of PTSD on Parent-Child Functioning in Military and Veteran Families.” Frontiers in Psychology, June 30, 2017.

5Parents with PTSD Need to Talk to Their Kids.” Newswise, June 14, 2017.