The struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can keep people stuck in the past. PTSD impacts the choices you make, the thoughts you have, and your daily routine. People who have this condition, especially when it is paired with a substance use disorder (SUD), often have difficulties with relationships. This becomes especially clear in relationships between parents and children.
A study reported by the National Institutes of Health found that an estimated 30% of the general population will experience SUD, and 8% will experience PTSD. About 40% of people with PTSD also have an SUD. This is called a co-occurring condition.
As a parent, you might think you’re doing your best to hide your co-occurring disorder from your child, yet children see much more than you might imagine.
What a Child Sees in a Parent with PTSD and SUD
PTSD and substance addiction are often hard to hide, and even if you believe you are doing well to manage these conditions, your children are likely to pick up on something being “different” or “wrong.” Consider some of the signs and symptoms that they may recognize in you:
- You may “re-experience” traumatic events that happened to you, often showing strong emotions like fear, guilt, and grief when you do. It feels like the trauma is happening all over again, and your children will be able to sense the change in your mood and behavior.
- Many people with co-occurring PTSD and addiction suffer great anxiety, which can affect mood. Children can pick up on anxiety in adults, especially when it directly affects them. For example, you may worry excessively over your child’s safety, to the point that you keep your child from having experiences that their peers are having.
- Many people with PTSD simply avoid risks, especially things that may make them feel as though they are reliving the trauma. That may mean you’re not willing to go to theme parks, go to the movies, or travel. Some people cannot manage large crowds.
These symptoms impact you and your ability to go through your day-to-day life. Yet they also have a direct impact on your child. You may avoid activities that your child would enjoy or be so protective of them that they become fearful as well.
How Do Children Manage a Parent with PTSD?
Every child is different in how they understand and take in what they are experiencing. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shares that many times, a parent’s symptoms of PTSD are directly linked to the way a child responds to them. Here are some of the most common ways children react to their parents’ symptoms:
- Some children mimic their parent’s reactions and interactions. They believe what the parent says and does is either normal or necessary. This is their way of creating a bond with the parent. Over time, the child may develop symptoms that seem to indicate PTSD.
- Other children find themselves embarrassed about and withdrawn from a parent with these signs. They may pull away, especially as they get older and realize their parents don’t behave like other parents.
- Some children, even from a young age, take on the role of being the parent, which often means helping a parent or showing protectiveness over the parent.
Many children have no idea what is occurring, especially if they are old enough to remember a time prior to the onset of PTSD. They do not understand their feelings and, without professional support, they may struggle with what’s occurring. This can lead to:
- Difficulties with relationships
- Problems with behavior or academics at school
- Relationship problems with parents
What Can You Do?
As a parent, the first step you can take is to ensure your child is getting the support they need. PTSD and SUD are not conditions that impact just one person–they affect the entire family. Find a therapist for your child and consider family therapy as well. Communicate with your child about your own treatment experience, and include them in your path to get well.
At The Ranch at Dove Tree, we help people facing all sorts of traumatic events to find a way forward. We can help you navigate post-traumatic stress disorder while also helping you to no longer be dependent on substances. In the long term, this can help to restore the health of your family. Our family therapy program is a component of your care, and it is a start in improving the lives of all.