Social Transmission of Traumatic Stress:  How is this possible?  Well, PTSD is a disorder of ANXIETY.  The original  PTSD sufferer (such as a parent) has learned, through the lens of one or more traumatic experiences, that the world is a dangerous and unsafe place.  He or she learns that one can never let down one's guard for a moment… one must always be "vigilant" to the possibility that the enemy is at the gate.  One must always "keep one's back to the wall."  There is little joy in life, and one is not entitled to be car.efree.  If you are carefree, you will let your guard down and "get it" in the end -  that is the message unconsciously sent by the parent. These attitudes are passed from parent to child.  They contradict the very essence of childhood, which is to be carefree.    Children are not born with an internal sense of safety.  They must receive it, by learning about it from their parents.  We often define childhood as a time in which small children should be able to play in safety, without a sense of fear or concern, and should be free to do what children are meant to do.  In other words, they should be free to explore the world around them, to learn about its beauty and fascination, and all the while know that they are secure under their parent's care.

The parent with PTSD communicates, under the surface, a  very different message to the child.  The unconscious message which the child picks up from the PTSD impacted parent is that there is no safety, anywhere.  This also translates into the message that "Mommy or Daddy don't feel safe; therefore they cannot keep ME safe !".  This initiates a huge level of distrust or anxiety on the part of the child which is absolutely the opposite of the security the child needs.

"Danger, Danger Everywhere !"  Something else which children need is a parent who models ACCURATELY what the child needs to know about reality and the world around him.  Children are, at a very young age, "magical thinkers."  In other words, they cannot readily distinguish between what is objectively real, and what is make-believe.  That is, in fact, why "play" is so very real to kids.  Eventually, however, the healthy child must learn the difference between what is objectively "real" in his environment,  and what is not.  However, in a home in which a PTSD-affected parent is experiencing flashbacks, children are watching in confusion.  The terrible traumas which are being relived in the mind of the parent who is having flashbacks cannot be seen by the child.  Since the child cannot see anything "real" , or physical, in the environment, he cannot understand what is causing such frightening shifts in the parent's behavior.   Unable to identify the cause of the parent's behavior, the child may place blame on himself, and believe that he is the cause of his parent's behavior, anger and irritability.  This will quickly destroy any sense of self-worth a child may have.  Alternatively, the child may conclude that danger exists EVERYWHERE and ALL AROUND , even though it can't be seen. The end result is that the child concludes that the world is not safe to be in, and can never be safe.  The child may then develop mental disorders that are based on fear and constant anxiety.

The Need For Nurturance:  Another basic need of every child is for the parent's PRESENCE and INVOLVEMENT.  If we didn't have a need to interact with parents, we'd all be created and reared by robots.  But robots cannot raise a child; PARENTS must do this work.  And this requires presence and involvement on an ongoing basis, including special times in the child's and family's life.  Unfortunately, PTSD often results in a parent's going AWOL from family life.  Usually, this is because a parent fears that he/she will have a flashback or other post-traumatic reaction in public, or in front of the family.  Fearing embarrassment or humiliation, the parent does the worst thing possible:  he/she simply fails to show up for sports, school activities, family gatherings, and special occasions.  The parent may think that he/she is doing the child a "favor" by remaining away.  The truth is exactly the opposite.  The child learns a painful lesson that says "I am not worth showing up for."   The absence of a parent from such activities will leave an indelible mark on the child that will always be remembered, and may give rise to tremendous anger, rage or rebellion that may fester until it erupts dangerously in later adult life.  When children rebel against a dysfunctional household, as they often do, the blame is often placed upon the child, when the root cause of the problem may, in fact, be a parent's untreated PTSD.

The Need For Consistency:  Children do not have the coping skills of adults.  They have a much smaller capacity to deal with sudden changes or shifts in circumstances.  They need a stable and relatively consistent framework, within which their lives can operate.  They need to know that their parents are responsible and loving, and that they can be depended upon.  They will become terribly confused, worried, anxious or even frightened if their lives are governed by one set of rules today, and a completely different set of rules tomorrow.  If children spend their lives "waiting for the other shoe to drop", or walking on eggshells, their brains and bodies are not free to do what children are SUPPOSED to do, which is grow and develop gradually and in safety.  Unfortunately, PTSD in a parent may create radical shifts in a parent's mood, behavior,and way of relating to a child.  It may cause a parent to engage in very risky or irresponsible behavior which affects a child's  living circumstances and basic security.  It may even cause domestic violence between parents to erupt.  All of these things, especially when taken together, place children at significant risk of developing PTSD themselves.

The message to parents:  Unfortunately, many parents do not realize realize that they have PTSD, and that they need help and treatment for their condition.  This is not only for their benefit, but is equally essential for their children's welfare.  Perhaps you are experiencing great discord in your relationship with your children, and have not recognized that PTSD is a part of your life.  Before concluding that the problem lies with your children, we hope you will take a serious look at whether you suffer from PTSD .  The takeaway message for parents with PTSD is this:  "Heads up. ITS NOT ALL ABOUT YOU.  You have an OBLIGATION to implement a care plan for your condition.  If you don't, the next person in line to suffer the effects of PTSD will likely be your child.  Check in with this site often, for new information about how you, as a PTSD-impacted parent, can improve and protect your relationship with your children.


        To learn more about the effect of PTSD on the parent-child relationship, read Chapter 1 of "I Always Sit With My Back To The Wall".

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