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Effects of Parents with PTSD on Children


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One reason why children may be psychologically damaged by growing up with a parent suffering from PTSD is that they (children) develop many of their behaviours by IMITATING the behaviour of their parents. It follows, then, that if the parent has unhealthy behaviours due to PTSD, the child may be developmentally adversely affected, including experiencing problems developing good social and interpersonal skills.

Indeed, if children are frequently exposed to the parent’s dysfunctional behaviour, the child can come to view such behaviour as the societal and cultural ‘norm’.

On top of this, if the parent suffering from PTSD is deeply absorbed by his/her own difficulties, it is quite possible that the child will be deprived of proper emotional support and also a stable environment, thus being made vulnerable to further psychological harm.

It is not uncommon for a child in such a situation to :

– falsely believe that s/he is the cause of their parent’s problems and thus be burdened with unnecessary guilt

– become depressed him/herself if the parent is suffering from depression

– copy the parent’s aggressive and violent behaviour (if symptoms of the parent’s PTSD include aggression and violence)

– express their frustration and emotional pain by bullying other siblings (they may also bully siblings to attempt to gain the parental attention that they are lacking or due to mimicking the parent’s behaviour – see above)

– suffer from the effects of household economic deprivation (such as increased stress) if the main income earner is unable to work due to PTSD

– feel unwanted and unlovable due to insufficient attention from the parent

– express his/her emotional pain by becoming hostile and aggressive (especially during adolescence) towards the parent

– grow up feeling worthless/develop very low self-esteem

PICTURES BELOW: PTSD is a very real illness that causes physical alterations to the brain. On the left is a scan of a ‘normal’ brain. On the right is a scan of a brain of a sufferer of PTSD :



These include :

excessive sensitivity to noise :

Because children tend to be fairly noisy, if the parent has developed excessive sensitivity to noise due to his/her PTSD, s/he may over-react to children making normal amounts of noise, such as exploding into a violent rage

fluctuating moods:

This will inevitably lead to the child being treated inconsistently, in turn leading him/her to feel confused and uncertain as to where s/he stands in relation to the parent. This may involve the parent disciplining the child in very unpredictable ways; this can make it hard for the child to trust the parent.  Also, the child may become too afraid to invite friends home as s/he is worried the parent may act inappropriately – this can mean the child becomes socially isolated and loses his/her social support system when s/he is in the direst need of it.

dissociation (‘zoning out’):

It is common for those suffering from PTSD to dissociate (‘DISSOCIATION’ is a psychological defence mechanism – CLICK HERE to read my article on this). This can lead to the child being neglected or largely ignored which, in turn, can lead the child to feel unwanted and unloved

uncontrollable outbursts of rage/anger :

This can lead to the child feeling in a constant state of fearful apprehension/needing to be ‘on guard’/anxiety, especially if such rages are unpredictable and the child is unable to understand what s/he has done ‘wrong’ (if anything). This can lead to the child building up a lot of internal resentment which may start to express itself in the child’s own outbursts of rage and anger

negative view of life :

The child can become ‘infected’ by the parent’s negative view of life and, therefore, develop precocious cynicism and a pervasive sense of despair regarding other people and the world in general

an unremitting view that the world and other people are invariably dangerous/threatening (to a much greater degree than would be objectively warranted) :

The child may absorb the parent’s fears and insecurities into his/her own psyche, developing into a fearful person him/herself

development of emotional dependency on the child :

The can cause the child to feel overwhelmed by responsibilities that s/he is not old enough to cope with psychologically. Therefore, instead of being carefree, s/he may feel constantly weighed down with anxiety and worry and feel that s/he has essentially ‘lost’ his/her childhood.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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