Explaining your PTSD to your children - A little gentle reassurance can be so very helpful

by Tom Cloyd - 6 min. read - (reviewed 2023-01-18:2205)

Regardless of your situation, your children will continue to need you as a source of physical and emotional safety and support. By focusing on their core needs you can significantly reduce the impact your PTSD will have on them, while you’re finishing your treatment.

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Parental PTSD affects entire families

People acquire PTSD in many ways. Some develop it abruptly as the result of a traumatic event, while others may have had it for years, but only found out about it recently. Whatever the case, when you become aware that you have PTSD, if you have children in your home you have more to deal with than you might think. PTSD changes how you respond to other people (see About my PTSD), and this can bewilder and even frighten children.

At the earliest point you can, it’s likely to be beneficial for you to talk to them about your PTSD. However, one doesn’t talk to children in the same way as one talks adults. With regard to PTSD, here are some things to consider.

Your message must be emotion-centered

Remember that the younger a child is the more they FEEL you, rather than HEAR you. With all children and many adolescents, you will do well to pay considerable attention to your “body language”, to how you touch them and how you move, to the quality and speed and volume of your voice, and so on. Again, the younger the child, the more this sort of thing is THE message they will remember. In all cases, if there is a conflict between what you say and what your body and voice says, it is the latter that will be heard. So, always give priority to HOW you way what you say, first of all. After that, WHAT you say matters, but not as much.

What you can say

Admit that you can be a problem for them

Here are some things you might say to your child, slowly and calmly. (Make changes, as needed, to adapt this to children of different ages. Remember that children often benefit from repetition. Say these sort of things as often as you think they need to hear them.)

“I know you worry sometimes because I don’t feel good. Sometimes I get cranky, or get really quiet, and I can’t help it. I know that this can worry you. I don’t want you to be worried about me. I’m OK, and I’m getting better. I’m going to take care of you no matter what happens.”

That very last sentence is the single most important thing they need to hear. Children live with the fact of being very small in a very big world. They need to know that you will attend to their needs, no matter what (to the best of your ability).

Speak to their fears about losing their parent

Children come into this world never having known anything but dependent relationship. That’s “normal” for them. It takes a while for them to realize that they could lose their parent, and thus their essential safety and support. That realization, when it comes to them, is likely to be very frightening, and one sees this when they show separation anxiety.

Losing their parent is, for most children, the worst thing imaginable. When your PTSD distances you from your child, it becomes much easier to for them to imagine their greatest fear. You need to try to quiet this fear. There is no doubt that excessive, and especially prolonged, experience of this fear is traumatizing to children. Move their experience in the other direction. Say something like this to them:

“I want you always to remember that even if I’m not feeling good, I’m still your mother/father, and I still care very much about you, and love you, and want you to feel safe and comfortable.”

Notice that the focus is on the child’s feelings, and the central concern in this statement is the child’s safety and welfare – something that necessarily is always their first concern. They simply don’t yet know how to exist apart from their parental caregiver.

As adults, it can be hard for us to remember what this is like for children, to remember the sense of absolute dependence that dominates their lives. The central focus of adolescence is the ending of this dependence, of course. But until that time, they really, really need to feel secure about your presence in their life.

Encourage them to move toward you

You child needs to hear that you are available to them. This may be hard for you for you to accomplish, if you’re “triggering” a lot. This is why learning symptom management is so important, while your healing is progressing.

“If I’m not feeling good, and you need me just to listen to you, or just to be with you, I want you to know that you can come to me and tell me this. I will listen to you.”

In talking with them, seek to correct their fear-distorted view of reality

“I also want you to know that when I don’t feel good it will last for only a little while. I will get better after some time passes. I know it can be hard for you to wait, but just remember, I will feel better soon. And while we are both waiting, you can come and be with me quietly, and maybe do some drawing, or reading, or play with toys, next to me. If you’re here, it’ll help me feel better. I’d really like that.”

This is another message about how you’re still their parent, and that you value them, even if you’re distracted and not feeling well. It’s central intent is to calm and reassure – to promote a sense of their being safe in spite of their seeing fear and disturbance in their parent from time to time. Also suggested is the idea that together, you and your child and get through tough times. That should be reassuring to hear.

The importance of a calm, constructive attitude

There are countless other reassuring, calming, comforting things you might say to your child or adolescent, and you can probably come up with a number of them on your own. In general, you can hardly go wrong if you emphasize (a) calmness and ease in how you say what you say, and (b) the positive, constructive qualities each of you do have.

Much of this may well not be easy for you, as a person with PTSD. Know that in advance. Then try to achieve this attitude anyway. It’s good for them, and it’s definitely good for you.

Don’t abandon your job as a parent

A simple but powerful thing to remember about working with children is that they WANT you to manage significant parts of their life, because they know they cannot. In adolescence, they will challenge you on this more than in earlier ages, but when you stand your ground in a reasonable way you assure them that they really DO still have a parent, and they don’t have to try to be adult before they really can be.

When you set reasonable, age-appropriate boundaries, you show them that you can be trusted, and this is critically important if you have PTSD, because when you’re feeling the disturbance natural to the disorder you’re simply not going to appear to them as reliable as you might otherwise be. Yet, they undeniably NEED you to be reliable – because they not yet adults.

External structure has great value – so keep it

Remember that children derive a sense of safety from having a reliable structure in their everyday life: regular bedtimes, regular bedtime rituals, regular wakeup rituals, regular breakfasts, regular birthdays, and so on. Adults also benefit from this, but with children in distressed families it becomes much more important. Try to see that this structure is a part of their lives.

The most helpful thing you can do

It’s simple: get competent psychotherapy and resolve your PTSD. This will change your life, and make a huge difference in your child’s quality of life. People with PTSD are frequently distracted, among other things. Without PTSD, they’re free to be who they really are and to connect productively with their families. Everybody wins.

 

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