Growing Up in a PTSD Household

While Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a personal struggle between the person affected by trauma and how their body responds, the affects do not stop at the trauma victim.  By virtue of being children, growing up in a household that has at least one parent suffering from PTSD has the ability to affect how they function later in life as adults.  In most situations, there is at least one parent who is in the household to play a barrier between the parent struggling with PTSD and the child, but that may not always be the case in situations such as divorce and single parents.  Growing up with PTSD in their household, children may be expected to not have grumpy moods, bad days, disrespectful tones, or bad attitudes.  Depending on when the PTSD started, the child may have been born into a household where PTSD was already located.

In the film, Trauma and Dissociation in Children I: Behavioral Impacts, the viewer is met with the number one public health issue, trauma and abuse in children.  Multiple experts regarding the issue of traumatized children relate how children’s bodies are affected from the trauma and the struggle within their bodies.  More times than not, children who experience traumatic stress or events are exposed to it on numerous levels.  The sum of the impact of stress will determine the long-term effects that it has on the child’s memory and their development.  There is a noticeable difference in the size of a traumatized child’s brain.  How the brain functions and the structures of the brain are visibly smaller.  (Trauma, 2007)

A child who is a victim of abuse and trauma will develop on the premise that they need to survive.  Long term affects could be that they struggle to keep from bouncing off the walls, unable to retain information, withdrawal, avoidance, escape, freeze, or have no emotional expression.  The coping styles that a child will develop will mirror what actually took place during the trauma itself.  (Trauma, 2007)  The brain development is not complete until the early 30s.  A child who experiences trauma early in life may have issues with the development of the frontal lobe responsible for the executive functions, specifically emotional regulation, flexibility, and inhibitory control.  (Rousseau, 2018, Module 3)  The trauma becomes ingrained in the emotional brain that is the heart of the body’s central nervous system.  The responses have a huge impact on any decision made in life.  (Van Der Kolk, 2014, page 57)  It is in this location where trauma stress is stored and will impact sleep, breathing, chemical balance, and basic functions.  (Rousseau, 2018, Module 3)

Parents who dissociate because of PTSD can leave a child neglected or ignored.  The parent suffering from PTSD may be self-absorbed and not providing the child in their household with the proper emotional support, which could lead to further psychological harm.  A child may believe that they are the cause of the parent’s behavior, become depressed, copy the parent’s aggressive and violent behavior, bully their siblings as an expression of frustration, feel unwanted or unloved, become hostile towards the parents, and grow up feeling worthless, leading to a low self-esteem.  (Hozier, 2014)

There are particular symptoms that a parent with PTSD suffers from that can be particularly damaging to a child.  Due to their nature, children are noisy.  Excessive noise can be a trigger for some PTSD sufferers who are sensitive to noise.  Also, fluctuating moods can leave a child feeling inconsistency in their environment, leading to feelings of confusion.  A child could also become affected with the parent’s negative view on life, which could lead to cynicism.  (Hozier, 2014)  When children are exposed to the behavior of a parent, they are going to mimic their parent’s behavior and actions.  A child may not realize that what their parent is doing is not normal.  Particularly so because a child may not even grasp what PTSD is or know that their parent is suffering.  The PTSD trauma may have been caused prior to the child’s birth.

In the cases of abuse, triggers can point a child into a dissociative state.  The job of a parent or caregiver is to put the child at ease and safely bring the child back to reality.  The documentary explained for warning signs for child protective service workers to look for regarding abused children.  For example, being overly protective of their parent.  When a child is immediately defensive regarding their parents, it may be because they fear the unknown of being removed from their parents’ custody.  The fact that they know what life is like with that parent, while it may not be great, it could be worse somewhere else.  Essentially, the child would not want anyone to jeopardize them being removed from the only stable thing they have in their life, which is their parent.  A child is born loving their parent and will essentially not known any better if the abusive relationship is all they know.  (Trauma, 2007)

Children growing up with a parent who suffers from PTSD may be traumatized because children learn their development from their parents through imitation.  When the parent suffering from PTSD is unable to deal with stressors or has unhealthy reactions, the child may develop adverse reactions to stimulus, which in turn develops problems with social and interpersonal skills.  The continued exposure of a child to dysfunctional behavior may lead the child to consider that behavior “normal.”  (Hosier, 2014)

A child surrounded by PTSD may respond in one of three ways.  A child may “over identify,” which means the child will act and feel just like their parent in order to connect with their parent, a child may become the “rescuer,” taking on the role of the adult, or the child may become “emotionally uninvolved” because they get little or no emotional help, causing problems later in life.  Feeling overburdened from what their parent is experiencing could lead to increased anxiety levels.  (Price, 2016)  In any of these situations, children are not responding at their age level.  A parent who suffers from PTSD may expect more from their child than they would have if they were not suffering.  For example, keeping noise levels down or understanding sudden mood changes or outbursts.  All things that are somewhat easier for adults to handle, are a huge burden for a child to conquer.

Parents living in a household with a child can provide help to the child understanding the symptoms of PTSD.  Preventative interventions are also helpful to the entire family.  A first step is to explain to the child the reason that the parent has PTSD, without providing graphic details.  The child needs to know that they are not in any way responsible.  (Price, 2016)  While not all reasons for PTSD are appropriate for children to know, the child has a right to know what happened to their parents.  Explaining the situation in terms that a child will be able to understand is important to solidify that the child is not the cause.

There are other options to assist the parents help their child cope with living in a PTSD household.  Treatment can be focused on the person suffering from PTSD, family therapy, and individual therapy.  The therapy that a child is placed in can be based on their age – play therapy or talk therapy.  Each family will need to determine what type of treatment option is the right fit for their situation.  (Price, 2016)  Therapy can provide a meaningful way for a child to speak with a neutral third party to express what bothers them.  It provides an outlet to the child and a non-judgmental arena to state their feelings and receive feedback.

There is not a human being on Earth who is perfect.  PTSD does not just affect the person living with the symptoms, it affects the entire family.  How that person functions as a parent can be undermined by PTSD.  Part of being a child is having the ability to bounce back from traumatic experiences and still live what is considered to be a normal, fulfilling life.  However, when trauma is repeated over and over again to children, particularly those of younger ages, this will alter their behavior for the remaining course of their life.  Understanding the signs and symptoms of PTSD can allow children in the household to be able to cope.  Providing a nurturing environment for the child to grow up will give them the tools that they need to become functioning adults.  The parents in the situation will make or break how the child deals with growing up surrounded by PTSD.  The actions of the parent and how they help their child understand and cope with their surroundings will be a deciding factor in how that child develops and whether there is any lasting impact.



(2007). Trauma & Dissociation in Children I: Behavioral Impacts [Video file]. Cavalcade

Productions. Retrieved July 17, 2018, from Kanopy.

Hozier, David. (November 26, 2014)  “Effects of Parents with PTSD on Children.”  Childhood

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Price, Jennifer L, PhD.  (February 23, 2016) “When a Child’s Parent has PTSD”  PTSD:

National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  Retrieved from:

Rousseau, D. (2018). Module 3 Lecture Notes. Trauma and Crisis Intervention (MET CJ 720),

Boston University, Boston, MA.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score:  Brain, mind, and body in the healing of

        trauma. New York:  Viking.

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