HONEY WE SCREWED UP THE KIDS: PTSD AND CHILDREN (PART 1)

The Unseen and Forgotten Victims of PTSD:  If there is one problem that our society and our military has not yet begun to effectively tackle, it is the long term effect that PTSD has through several succeeding generations.    It is no accident that since the Vietnam war, our society has witnessed a significant change in its makeup and norms of behavior.  What we are seeing in our population, in large measure, is in an increase in (l)  violence, (2) individual struggles for power and control within families and relationships, and (3) the decrease in a sense of human connectness and mutual responsibility.  These characteristics are symptomatic of PTSD, and of its presence in the family, where post traumatic behavior serves as a highly negative model for children.  Because I treat PTSD -affected children as a trauma therapist, their awful situation is of special emotional importance to me.  I see its terrible impact daily.  I measure its enormous cost to human beings and society.  And I am at times overcome with frustration at the manner in which we fail to see the problem standing before us, not just in combat boots, but in tennis shoes. 

"Children of the Combat Zone":    We are seeing more and more children behave as if they are in a combat theater, at home, in school, and in society.  Their behavior is often ungoverned by socially appropriate rules that, for centuries, have ensured civil behavior between individuals.  We see more and more children acting in a way that is - literally - SURVIVAL BASED. Rather than being governed by the "thinking" processes of the higher brain (including the moral conscience) , their conduct may become dictated by the limbic system in the mid-brain..... the area where PTSD "lives".  Survival based responses initiate, in children, an attitude in which the brain says to the body... "Take whatever you need... do whatever you need... your survival is on the line."  As a result, many children quickly learn to behave in a manner that says to society "It's all about me."  To see these unfortunate youngsters behave the way they do is to understand that they are acting out what has been modeled for them by parents, whose PTSD has become an example for survival-based behavior.

  This is in no small measure because of the post-traumatic fallout, within our society, of the Vietnam war, as well as later conflicts preceding OIF and OEF (Iraq and Afghanistan).  Not only was the PTSD of earlier generations of veterans rarely identified or effectively and timely treated, but virtually no thought WHATSOEVER was given, until recently,  to identifying the traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and attachment disorders which became embedded in the children of families whom the war had impacted. For years, PTSD was thought of as a soldier's illness, not a child's disorder.   Not until these children had become dysfunctional adults did mental health professionals begin looking at the "legacy" of emotional illness which had been passed down to them because of their parents' PTSD.  These effects may potentially expand geometrically in each succeeding generation, until we see the very fabric of society torn apart by this terrible illness, which  we now know as PTSD.

"Fear Factor":  While some children have become hyperkinetic (often mistaken for hyperactivity disorder), aggressive and anti-social or conduct disordered due the the effects of PTSD in their families, others live with a legacy of fear.  These are the ones society does not see, usually ignores, and often criticizes for the "inattentive, withdrawn" behavior at school.  These are the ones who fear going home at the end of each day because they can't predict the behavior of the parent that awaits them.  These are the one's who have nowhere to retreat except into themselves, and who may mentally "check out" of an environment that is perceived as overwhelming or too stimulating to their brains.  Those brains spend every minute of every hour of every day "scanning" the environment for threats that may be coming there way, including the screaming fights of parents, objects that may go flying in their home, or the footsteps of a parent coming in the doorway in the grips of a PTSD-induced rage.  These are the children who have learned to survive by being as quiet and withdrawn as possible.  Like tiny rabbits in the forest, they learn to "cover and conceal" and the "erase themselves" in the hopes that the wolf will pass them by.  They take the affects of PTSD with them to school, where the same young, impressionable brains that constantly "scan" the environment like radar, seeking to detect the danger around them, can never "stand down" long enough to focus on the teacher or the blackboard. 

The blind society:  Children do not have the capacity to outwardly express their internal mental states.  Those states exist below the level of conscious awareness, so it is impossible for children to realize that they are affected by anxiety disorders or secondary PTSD.  Children simply know what they know, and assume it is all normal. They are blind to what ails them, because they have nothing "normal" to compare themselves, or their family lives, against.  Society most often interacts with these children through the school system.  Since the school system has "jurisdiction" over the child for large portions of the day (legally called "in loco parentis") the school may act quickly to punish or discipline the one under its immediate wing - the child.  The school rarely is in direct interface with the parent.  And if it were, it would not have jurisdiction over, or the authority to treat, the parent's mental illnesses.  As a result, millions of children in this country become failures in society at an early age, because schools deal with the tail end of the problem (the child), rather than its root (one ore more parents / caregivers whose PTSD-affected behavior has gone untreated and left its mark upon the child). 

Secondary In Position, Equal in Suffering:  In Chapter 1 of our book, "I Always Sit With My Back To The Wall", we discuss some of the many ways in which PTSD affects, skews, and often destroys normal and healthy emotional, mental and psychological growth and development in children.  In weeks and months to come, you will see much more on this website about this subject, including expert references and research studies that help to explain why America's children are, literally, under attack by secondary  PTSD.  The word "secondary" simply means that they stand one level or step away from the original source of trauma.  For example, a child may be a level removed from the actual mortar rounds that may have traumatized his/her warrior father.  It is critical to note, however, that  EVEN THOUGH THE ROUTE OF EXPOSURE TO TRAUMA MAY BE SECONDARY IN THE CASE OF THE CHILD, ITS SYMPTOMS AND EFFECTS MAY BE THE SAME AS THE PRIMARY SUFFERER.  In this sense, the child may develop PTSD as if he/she is under mortar fire, only indirectly.

Read Part 2 of this article, which explains more about how PTSD-affected behavior is transmitted within families, especially to children.  And read about the problem in I Always Sit With My Back to The Wall, available in various formats from this website.

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