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Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Military Family

As moms in the military community, it’s important to educate ourselves on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If left unchecked or untreated, it can potentially lead to substance abuse, violent behavior, or suicide.

What is PTSD?

Everyone has painful memories, right? But not everyone is affected the same way. PTSD is a debilitating condition that can emerge after a frightening experience, such as trauma. A trauma is a shocking, dangerous event during which you think your life or others’ lives are in danger. It turns out that trauma is common in women. According to the National Center for PTSD,  five out of ten women experience a traumatic event. PTSD may occur after a stressful event you’ve witnessed; especially, if you begin to experience flashbacks or persistent, distressing thoughts and memories.  

A diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an upsetting, traumatic event.  However, exposure could be indirect rather than first-hand; for example, PTSD might develop if you learn that a close family member or friend has died accidentally or violently. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “PTSD affects approximately 3.5 percent of U.S. adults, and an estimated one in 11 people will experience PTSD in their lifetime.”  It can affect people of any ethnicity, nationality and culture at any age.

Stress in Childhood

Indirect exposure to a trauma is one way children may be affected by PTSD.  Do you think about what kinds of stress may be influencing your family members?

As mothers connected to the military, we face situational stress and challenges as part of the deal when we (or our spouses) signed up to serve our country. It is also normal to be stressed when you consider the pregnancy/birth process (especially in a foreign countr at a medical facility on the economy); the uncertainty of where and when you’ll find out your next assignment; finding emergency contacts when you first move and before you have had a chance to meet new friends; managing a family care plan (especially if you are a dual military household); getting household goods shipped through PCS moves; and deployments/remote assignments. We generally try to shield our little ones from stress or trauma through normal protective measures . . .  so does it make sense to eliminate absolutely all potential stressors from a child’s environment?  Isn’t that why we use car seats and baby-proof a house? 

Most military-connected children are healthy and resilient, and may even have more flexibility, adaptability, and strength as a result of the stress they regularly face in a military family environment; unfortunately, some children in our community are at higher risk.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, those at more risk are young children; some boys; children with preexisting health/mental health problems; whose parents serve in the guard or reserve, or have had multiple deployments; who do not live close to military communities; live in places with limited resources; single-parent families with the parent deployed; and dual-military parent families with one or both parents deployed.  

How did your parents handle life challenges when you were a small child?

Military Lifestyle Stressors

This is my dad stationed in England.

Growing up overseas in a military family, I saw my mom and dad go through challenges related to relocation and tough duty schedules. My parents met on the tropical island of Taiwan in the East China Sea during the Vietnam War.  After marriage, my mom made an overnight transition to the food, culture, language, climate, and customs of England (where I was born); frequently, she battled digestion and socialization issues. Thankfully, my mom adapted over time: eating strange new foods, learning the English language, and becoming an American citizen. My dad didn’t have as much of a culture shock in the U.K. but strongly disliked working through the middle of the night regularly and sleeping during the day. I quickly learned the routine of watching my mom draw thick, dark curtains during the morning and hushing me throughout the day so that I wouldn’t wake my dad. The graveyard shifts certainly added a mystical air to my father’s assignment as a weather forecaster; after a few years, we welcomed my brother into the family and eventually my dad changed career fields (and became a medical resource administrator), which helped his sleeping schedule.  My parents did pretty well, I must admit, for dealing with the stress of having me as an infant/toddler through all these challenges.

My mother and I learned to be very quiet during the day while my father slept.

As a young child, I learned that constant change was normal in my military family. Each time we moved, I adapted to a new neighborhood, school, friends, and language/customs of a new country. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve become stronger and more resilient through multiple relocations across three continents — a common occurrence in the experience of children in military families.

Useful vs. Bad Stress

Stress is common in the military lifestyle, and worth examining more closely to understand which kinds of stress are useful and which are not. According to the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, there are two kinds of stress, each with different effects on the mind and body:  Short-term/acute stress and sustained/chronic stress.  

Most people agree that chronic stress is hurtful and best to avoid, if possible. In children, chronic stress comes from abuse, neglect, sensory deprivation, excessive worry, regular exposure to violence, and disasters. A chronically-stressful childhood often leads to anxiety, depression, or worse. Everyone agrees that children should be protected from chronic stress.

Acute stress, on the other hand, is the response to a frightening, competitive, or dangerous stimulus that is completely resolved within seconds or minutes. It’s a short burst of stress, then it’s done.  Many forms of play, especially physical play, involve some level of acute stress. Sports, video games, and other competitions and contests are strong inducers of acute stress; that’s part of why we enjoy them.  Acute stress is not just fun, but beneficial — even necessary for childhood development.

So what should a mom do?  What signs should we be on the lookout for? 

PTSD Symptoms

According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the following are common symptoms of PTSD in children or adolescents:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depression
  • Feeling jittery or “on guard”
  • Being easily startled
  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy; detachment; general lack of responsiveness; feeling numb
  • Trouble feeling affectionate
  • Irritability, more aggressive than before, or even violence
  • Avoiding certain places or situations that bring back memories
  • Flashbacks or intrusive images 
  • Reenactment of an event for a period of seconds or hours 
  • Problems in school; difficulty concentrating
  • Worry about dying at an early age
  • Regressive behaviors (such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting)
  • Physical symptoms (such as headaches or stomachaches)

Parents with PTSD

Whatever may have been your experience, we all have our own ways of dealing with trauma. According to the American Psychological Association, “Fearing for their careers, many service members keep quiet about their mental health problems—and their silent suffering is taking a toll on our military readiness.” Considering the stigma that many military members have adopted traditionally about mental health being uncomfortable for the military image, we must encourage our community to be more proactive — to help kids at home in military families. 

Parents can help children by reaching out to a Military Family Life Counselor. Parents or professionals can talk to family members about the possible impact of a parent’s PTSD on children.  It can help for family members to learn how traumatic reactions can be passed from parent to child.

A good first step in helping children cope with a parent’s PTSD is to explain the reasons for the parent’s difficulties.  Be careful not to share too many details of the event(s) with the child; how much you say depends on your child’s age and maturity level.  It is important to help children see that your symptoms are not their fault.  Some parents want help with what to say to their children, and a counselor could help with this.

Here are a couple of books for military-connected children, whose mom or dad has combat-related PTSD: “Why is Mom So Mad?” and “Why is Dad So Mad?”. These are full-color, beautifully-illustrated narratives for military families, especially when a mother or father struggles with PTSD and its symptoms: anger, forgetfulness, sleepless nights, and nightmares.  The stories’ main lesson is that even though Mom and Dad may get angry or raise their voices, they still love their family more than anything in the world. These stories were written by a 16-year Army veteran who wanted to explain his PTSD symptoms to his children.

Treatment options

Treatment can include individual treatment for the adult with PTSD as well as family therapy. Family therapy supports the parent with PTSD and teaches family members how to get their own needs met.  Vet Centers across the country and some VA PTSD programs offer group, couples, and individual programs for family members of veterans. 

Children may benefit from their own therapy as well, which might differ based on the child’s age. Each family is different, and decisions about what kind of treatment to seek, if any, can be hard. The most important thing is to help each member of the family, including the children, say what he or she needs.  The Anxiety Disorder Association of America provides links to therapists across the U.S. who specialize in the treatment of anxiety disorders, and PTSD specifically.  Families in Texas have various resources, including the STRONG STAR network and  Family Endeavors Clinic in San Antonio. Contact your chaplain or first sergeant for help to find more information. 

When in doubt, don’t stress out!  More resources are available on the last pages of this free 25-page guide from the VA and this 11-page guide from educators in government. We are all in this together and here to help!

 

 

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One Response to Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Military Family

  1. David Tawei August 14, 2017 at 11:27 pm #

    This is a really informative and practical article about children from military families and what they may experience, moving around constantly, and challenges they experience. Very insightful, and thanks, Linda, for sharing your personal story.