A contagious disease: children of veterans are often secondary victims of wartime PTSD

There are approximately 4 million military-related children in the United States. With the longest war in American history finally over, these children have been affected by war like no previous generation, especially in families where the veteran suffers from PTSD.

The Veterans Administration reported that 21% of post-9/11 soldiers who sought help from the VA from 2004 to 2009 had PTSD, 2% had traumatic brain injury, and 5% had both. Now that these veterans have returned home, their lives – and those of their families – are forever changed as young children deal with the stresses of living with someone who, in many ways, is a new parent at times. unpredictable. Some call it secondary PTSD.

A “contagious disease”

“Kids have this expectation, this vision of ‘Oh, daddy is coming home. It’s going to be awesome,’ and they have these memories, maybe if they’re older, of the fun they had with daddy” said psychologist Bob Motta, “But the person who comes back is a dark, negative, machine-like being. That clash of your expectations versus what’s coming back is really hard to take.”

Motta was drafted into the army during the Vietnam War, serving in the 1st Calvary Division, often working in helicopters as a door gunner or helping deliver medical supplies. When he returned home, he decided to study how PTSD affected the families of Vietnam veterans.

“The original medical conceptualization of PTSD is that it’s a disorder of an individual, but what research has consistently shown is that’s not true,” he said. . “It is a disorder that spreads to others, especially those who have close and prolonged contact with the person, much like the flu would. It is a contagious disease. »

This disease can spread not only to a caring spouse, but also to children. Motta calls it secondary trauma. People with PTSD often “relive” traumatic events through memories or dreams. It can happen quickly and can seem to come out of nowhere. These symptoms are often accompanied by strong feelings of grief, guilt, fear or anger.

Sometimes the experience can be so strong that it feels like the trauma is reoccurring. These symptoms can be frightening not only for individuals but also for their children. Children may not understand what is happening or why it is happening. They may worry about their parent or worry that the parent cannot care for them.

Several studies in different countries have shown that children are affected by having a parent who is a veteran with PTSD. For example, a 2008 study in Bosnia and Herzegovina of children of war veterans with PTSD found that father’s PTSD can have “long-term and lasting consequences on the child’s personality.”

Many children may develop symptoms that mirror those of their injured parent. An example might be a young child who has nightmares because of his parents’ nightmares or because he is worried about his parents’ behavior. A child may have trouble paying attention in school or exhibit new behavioral problems because he thinks about his parents’ problems. This impact on a child due to worry and identification with their injured parent is sometimes referred to as “secondary trauma”.

A child’s symptoms may worsen if there is not a parent who can recognize the effects of parental hurt and communicate with their children to help them feel better. Usually, children are spontaneously happy and love to play and have fun, but traumatized children behave radically differently.

“They are dark. They are in a bad mood. They are removed. They are irritable. If they were doing well in school, their grades have now dropped,” Motta said. “They can’t concentrate. Their memory is very bad. And that’s because they’re so wrapped up in their parents’ problems that they can’t really concentrate in school.

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