Children who live with a traumatized parent are influenced by the PTSD symptoms that the parent displays at home. The emotional instability that comes with PTSD becomes embedded in the child. Trauma can be passed from parents to their children (intergenerational transmission of trauma) and the children can start displaying the symptoms of PTSD as well (e.g., start having nightmares about the parent’s trauma, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, emotional numbness etc.). The research of secondary traumatization began with the study of children of holocaust survivors and with the years developed to other traumata. The most recent research suggest that PTSD can also be transferred genetically and not solely due to learned or psychological implications.
Children of parents with PTSD have higher risk of emotional, behavioral, academic and interpersonal problems (Lev-Weisel, 2007).The children exhibits more depression, anxiety, aggressiveness, act out, poor attitude towards others, delinquent behavior, hyperactivity, practice self -destructive behavior and have more difficulties forming and maintaining positive relationships. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2000) children of Vietnam veterans with PTSD are more likely to use drugs and alcohol and they are also three times more likely to attempt suicide than children from the general population. Feeling disappointed, unsupported, unloved, rejected by a parent who is emotionally numb, detached, psychologically absence and/or avoids places/people/activities due to high anxiety may cause low self- esteem, intensifies anxiety and depression and also reduces the child’s ability to relate to others (Ruscio, Weathers, King, & King, 2002). Irritability, low frustration tolerance and aggressive behavior of the parent can lead the child to question his own behavior and in extreme cases of violence even own self-worth. It naturally also increases the probability of the child becoming aggressive himself and developing a academic and interpersonal problems in school (Harkness,1993). Some children realize that the parent is not able to function well and they take over the parenting role. The child essentially takes care of the parent and tried to stabilize the situation at home by taking over all the responsibilities. The burden of the psychological as well as the functional responsibility is clearly beyond the emotional, behavioral and cognitive capacities of the child and thereby causes distress, stress, as well as loss of innocence and carefree living, which every child should be able and has the right to experience.
Ancharoff et al. (1998) proposed four manners in which the PTSD symptoms can be transmitted. The first is silence. Silence could originate from the fear of creating discomfort or triggering negative distressing reactions in the survivor. Some may believe that talking about it could make the symptoms worse. When the topic of the trauma and the symptoms becomes a taboo in the family to the extent that no one talks about it at all, discussions about thoughts, emotions and events are avoided. The child does not get any explanation to the parents’ symptoms and therefore the child’s anxiety increases. Children may also worry about their parent’s ability to take care of them. The child worries about the parent’s well being and starts developing his/her own ideas about why the symptoms are present. The child may create an imaginary and horrifying story in his mind of what happened to the parent. A drastic and horrendous story might be woven that could possibly be worse than the actual trauma. By creating imaginary details in one’s mind, the child begins to experience emotions and thoughts that relate to that imagined story.
On the opposite of the continuum lays the over-discloser parent. A parent that tell every specific and explicit details of the trauma, especially when not age appropriate, can cause the child to develop high anxiety, distress, depression and PTSD symptoms in response to the detailed images that were given. Children who experienced extreme fear, horror and helplessness due to the detailed narrative are at higher risk of developing PTSD (Yehuda et al., 1998). Some parents may think that that a detailed story will help prepare the child to the dangers hidden in the world and by knowing every details, the child will know what to look in order to protect himself. The family’s norms and beliefs are passed down from one generation to the next. As a result the child also develops a belief that danger is creeping around the corner, no one can be trusted, people are evil and that life is uncontrollable and unpredictable. The core beliefs of a child shatter completely. Children also learn from observing and imitating their parents. Children of survivors may therefore take over some of the behaviours and emotional states of their PTSD parents (Kellermann, 2001).
Children who are continuously exposed to PTSD reactions (e.g. flashbacks) may find themselves taking part in the reenactment of the parent’s trauma. The parent re-experiences the trauma as if it is reoccurring in the present and has difficulty distinguishing between the past and the present. A child present at the time might find himself being pulled into that reenactment. Due to this re-enactment the child could start thinking, feeling and behaving as if it happened to him/her too. Identification is the last method of trauma transference. The over-identified child begins to share symptoms as a way of connecting or understanding the parent with PTSD better.
What should you do if your partner has PTSD? First of all gather information and educate yourself about PTSD and the possible impact of secondary traumatisation. Children who do not understand the symptoms may blame themselves for the parent‘s behaviour thus it is important to explain the symptoms to the child in his cognitive and maturity level. It is important for the child to understand that the symptoms have nothing to do with him but with a trauma that the parent has endured. If you don’t really know how or what to say, it might be useful to ask for the assistance from a child psychologist. It is important to be alert and observe the children and their emotional, psychological and behavioural reactions. Children who exhibit major changes may benefit from individual therapy or even group therapy where they can share their experiences, thoughts and emotions with other children of survivors. If allot of the burden has fallen on your shoulders, ask for help and support from friends, family members or even members of support groups. Children will have enough difficulties adjusting to the new situation without taking on any adults’ responsibilities or becoming an emotional support resource. Children are emotionally and cognitively incapable of handling that burden, distress and stress. Take care good of yourself (relaxation exercise, enough sleep, good diet and enjoy pleasurable moments) so you will be able to function well as a supportive partner and parent. Family therapy may also benefit the family of a PTSD patient. Family therapy can help the family members better understand and cope with the PTSD. It can help improve communications and restore normal interaction within the family as well as teach the parents how interact in such a way that will prevent the development of PTSD in the children.
Ancharoff, M.R., Munroe, J.F. & Fisher, L.M. (1998). The legacy of combat trauma. Clinical implications of inter-generational transmission. In Y. Danieli, (Ed.), International handbook of multigenerational legacies of trauma (pp. 257-276). New York: Plenum.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2000). Morbidity of Vietnam veterans: A study of the health of Australia’s Vietnam veteran community. Suicide in Vietnam veterans’ children: Supplementary Report no. 1. AIHW cat. no. PHE 25. Canberra: AIHW
Harkness, L. (1993). Transgenerational transmission of war-related trauma. In J. P. Wilson & B. Raphael (Eds.), International handbook of traumatic stress syndromes (pp. 635-643). New York: Plenum Press
Kellermann, N. (2001). Transmission of Holocaust Trauma-an integrative view, 64 ,3, 256-268.
Lev-Wiesel, R. (2007). Intergenerational transmission of trauma across three generations: A preliminary study. Qualitative Social Work, 6, 1, 75-94.
Ruscio, A. M., Weathers, F. W., King, L. A. and King, D. W. (2002). Male war-zone veterans’ perceived relationships with their children: The importance of emotional numbing. Journal of Traumatic. Stress, 15, 351–357.
Yehuda, R., Schmeidler, J., Elkin, A., Houshmand, E., Siever, L., Binder-Brynes, K., Wainberg, M., Aferiot, D., Lehman, A., Guo, L.S. & Yang, R.K. (1998). Phenomenology and psychobiology of the intergenerational response to trauma. In Y. Danieli, (Ed.), International handbook of multigenerational legacies of trauma (pp. 639-655). New York: Plenum.