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Can the Stress of Raising a Child with PTSD Result in a Parent with PTSD?

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
03/08/19  4:27 PM PST
parent with PTSD

The answer is a resounding “Yes.” You, as a parent, are entering into the parenting scene with your own areas of strength and weakness, and sometimes they match up with your child, but sadly, sometimes they don’t. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and lack of control, which can be traumatizing and distressing at a high level. Let’s face it, when we become parents, there is no introductory period, trial period, or returns allowed. So even though we believed that parenthood can be done in a particular way, it often does not and we have to grieve that loss of the “family that I hoped for” or the “parent I promised I would be.”

Parenting trauma can consist of any event or behavior that a parent finds overwhelming. For example, gaining a shocking diagnosis, being the target of your child’s aggression, feeling like you are the only person who can care for your child, having your child terminated from a preschool or private school program. There is no right or wrong way of becoming traumatized. Some people have a high tolerance for life’s surprise events, others are taken down right from the start, while others can take and take and take, but then become worn down. 

Some examples of situations and events that can lead to parent PTSD is ongoing stress such as marital conflict, frequent hospitalizations for your child, frequent trips to the ER, having a child who was in the NICU or PICU, aggressive behavior issues (e.g., head banging, biting, punching, pinching, spitting).  It may also include difficulties in finding the right physician or therapist to provide the support your child needs (sensory wise, medication, overall health), or difficulty in finding a school for your child where staff can handle him using a humane approach.  

Parent PTSD can also be activated by your distressing experiences in raising your child that are being triggered by trauma you may have experienced as a child, adolescent or young adult. That is, trauma that is pre-existing that is now being re-triggered by the stress of parenting a child with special needs. This may include child abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, significant hospitalization or illness, rape, or even child birth.

For your child with PTSD, he may be having nightmares, flashbacks, numbness, avoidance, etc. that can be triggered by certain odors, scents, places or faces. For the parent, the PTSD flashbacks and nightmares may result from not being able to control or manage aggressive behavior, nightmares, the extreme emotion that comes with being scared. Although the symptoms are the same for parents and child, the triggers can be different. The stress of parenting a child with PTSD also means that both you and your child are regularly in fight mode for different reasons. So, you both may be under-slept yet hypervigilant and watching for triggers or potential dangers.

Often times, we don’t consider that the parent of a child with PTSD can also be suffering from PTSD as well. For care providers, it’s always a good idea to assess the parent’s emotional well-being just as much as it is to think about treatment options for the child. In my private practice, I often listen to the parent’s concerns about their child, but before we progress, I often will stop and ask the parent how he or she is holding up. This question is often validating for the parent and offers a safe place to vent and cry.

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