Bret A. Moore Psy.D., ABPP

The Camouflage Couch

Helping Children Cope with a Parent’s PTSD

Listen, educate, and share...but not too much.

Posted Aug 23, 2012

Post-traumatic stress disorder is more than just a disorder of the individual. In many cases, it causes considerable disruption in the family — particularly for children.

In addition to being confused and worried about the parent with PTSD, children may experience fear, sadness and anger. In extreme cases, children may exhibit discipline problems at home and school or withdraw from family and friends.

If you have PTSD, the good news is that there are things you can do to help your child cope with this disorder of the family.

Listen to your children. This is the first and best thing you can do. Encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings, even negative ones. Be open-minded and avoid passing judgment. Coming across as critical or dismissive will make them shut down emotionally. Whatever you do, don’t try to convince them they shouldn’t feel a certain way. That’s a good way to bring communication and progress to a halt.

Educate using age-appropriate examples. The best way to explain a complicated issue to children is to talk to them at their level. For example, almost every kid has been afraid of a monster or two at some point. Remind them of what it was like to first think there was a monster under the bed or in the closet. Explain that this is how you felt when you experienced the traumatic event. You can also make a comparison about how they don’t like to think about the monster to how you don’t like to think about the bad thing that happened to you.

Tell them it’s not their fault. That may seem obvious to you, but children tend to internalize problems within the family. Therefore, in clear, unambiguous terms, let them know that your illness has nothing to do with anything they’ve done or thought. Also, explain to them that it is not their responsibility to fix you or the family’s problems.

Don’t provide too many details. It is important to be open and honest, but there is no benefit to discussing the gruesome and frightening aspects of the traumatic event with children. The younger they are, the more difficult it is for them to process emotionally charged information. Tell them only what they need to know. If they ask difficult and probing questions that you don’t know if you should answer, defer and talk to a professional.

The psychology of children is complex. Even with unconditional love, understanding and patience, your child still may need the help of a professional. Don’t look at this a failure on your part but rather an important step in helping your child get better.