There are many ways in which parents with PTSD may adversely affect the lives of their children and I describe examples of these below :
Modelling Parental Behavior :
One of the most fundamental ways in which the child learns, especially when young, is by observing his/her parents and modelling his/her own behavior upon theirs. And, because the child lacks reference points with which to compare his/her parents behavior, it seems ‘normal’ and acceptable.
The child, then, has an innate propensity to imitate his/her parents ; this means s/he is likely to imitate not only healthy behaviors, but unhealthy parental behaviors, too ; so, for example, if the child has a parent who suffers from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and one of the symptoms of that PTSD is aggression, the child him/herself is at risk of also developing aggressive behavior. This could manifest itself in many ways, including bullying peers at school or a younger sibling.
Of course, aggressive behavior is just one example, the child may also imitate other unhealthy behaviors the parent displays that are symptomatic of PTSD.
Financial Stress :
A parent with PTSD may be so incapacitated by the illness that s/he is unable to work. This can generate more stress in the household which, in turn, can adversely affect the child’s quality of life.
Irrational Self-Blame :
It is common for children living within stressful households caused by a parent’s psychiatric condition to irrationally blame themselves for the situation. For example, if the parent displaces their anger (caused by PTSD) onto the child, the child may well infer s/he is ‘bad’ and ‘deserves’ to be ill-treated, rather than realizing that the parent’s abusive behavior is a symptom of his/her PTSD.
Helplessness / Feelings Of Being Unwanted :
The child may feel helpless and impotent to make the parent feel better. As a result, s/he may begin to feel ‘surplus to requirements’, a ‘burden’ and ‘unwanted.’
The feeling of being unwanted may be exacerbated if the parent’s PTSD means s/he withdraws and detaches from the child and neglects him/her (emotionally and/or physically)
Impaired Ability To Trust :
If the parent is highly emotionally dysregulated s/he may punish/discipline the child unpredictably and unjustly. This can make it hard for the child to trust the parent. This lack of trust can then extend to others. As time goes on, the child may come to distrust people in general and to view the world as a dangerous place, prematurely losing their care-free innocence.
Social Isolation :
The parent’s PTSD may lead the child to become increasingly socially isolated. For example, s/he may fear inviting his/her friends around to their house/apartment in case their unpredictable parent acts inappropriately (e.g. explodes into a fit of irrational rage).
Or the parent with PTSD may become so withdrawn that s/he stops inviting the wider family to the house/apartment or stops taking their child to visit extended family members.
Also, financial pressures could mean the child needs to be withdrawn from clubs/societies that charge fees.
If the parent, due to his/her PTSD, becomes frequently prone to explosive and unpredictable outbursts of rage the child may develop hypervigilance (a constant, stressful sense of being on ‘red alert’ and a feeling that danger could strike at any moment). This, in turn, can lead to other problems such as depression, anxiety and difficulties concentrating; it may also lead to the child developing his/her own anger management difficulties.
In relation to this, the child may sometimes – entirely inadvertently and innocently – trigger ‘flashbacks’ in the parent with PTSD and then be unable to understand why s/he has caused his/her parent such distress.
The parent may start to rely on the child for emotional / physical support at a time when the child is not sufficiently emotionally mature to shoulder such a burden. (To read my previously published article on ‘PARENTIFICATION’ and its possible adverse effects upon the child, click here).
Resentment And Self-Hatred :
The child may, naturally, come to resent the parent for the stressful conditions s/he is now forced to live in but then feel guilty and full of self-loathing for having such feelings
Low Self-Worth :
Many children growing up in conditions in which they are forced to contend with difficulties such as those described above may incur very substantial and long-lasting damage to their sense of self-worth.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).