Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/31/2023
How can parents with PTSD take care of their mental health? Here’s what to know.
Parenting is hard enough. From sleepless nights to trying to instill good values to navigating a busy schedule, there’s a lot to deal with. And if you have a mental illness as a parent, it can be even more difficult.
The truth is, many parents suffer from some sort of mental health condition. In a survey conducted between 2008 and 2014, around 18 percent of parents reported experiencing mental illness in the last year.
One condition that can affect parents? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
About 9 million people in the United States are affected by PTSD, which the National Alliance on Mental Illness says can occur after someone lives through a traumatic event, such as an assault, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, physical abuse or a natural disaster. If you experience long-term effects of this trauma, it’s considered PTSD.
Given that so many people in the U.S. experience PTSD, we can reasonably assume some are parents. It’s important for parents with PTSD to take care of themselves. If you don’t, it can impact your mental health and even affect your kids.
PTSD can impact all areas of your life. For instance, it can make you feel more anxious or change how you interact in relationships. And, yes, PTSD can even have a negative impact on parenting.
A 2019 systematic review assessed 27 quantitative studies on PTSD in parents. These studies looked at a variety of things in connection to parenting, including satisfaction, stress and the parent-child relationship. The systematic review found that many of these things were impaired when a parent had PTSD.
To break it down further, having PTSD as a parent can change how you interact with your child, add parental stress to your life and lower the satisfaction you feel relating to being a parent.
Parents with PTSD may notice that it impacts their emotions and even how they interact with their kids. But it’s important to dive in a little deeper. Understanding exactly how PTSD affects parenting can help you know what to look out for.
Looking at the most common PTSD symptoms and how they can play out in the parent-child dynamic can help you understand how the mental health condition impacts parenting. Here’s a breakdown:
Re-experiencing the trauma. This can manifest in various ways. Flashbacks, being triggered by things that remind you of the trauma, nightmares and intrusive memories are all re-experiencing symptoms. If you’re in a state of fear, it may be challenging to be present in the moment with your child.
Avoidance. Avoiding places, people or things that remind you of your trauma can be common with PTSD. If you’re avoiding certain triggers, it could make your life smaller — and by association, it could make your child’s life smaller.
Cognition and mood symptoms.Dissociation and numbness may also occur. Along with that, people with PTSD may find it challenging to concentrate, feel angry often or no longer enjoy things they once liked. As a parent, it can be hard to navigate these emotions while also trying to embrace raising your child.
Arousal symptoms. Hypervigilance (always being on the lookout for danger) is a sign of PTSD. Difficulty sleeping and emotional outbursts also fall under arousal symptoms. Parenting on no sleep? Yikes. And if you’re always on the lookout for potential problems or danger, it’s harder to be present in the moment for your kid.
Parents with PTSD aren’t the only people affected by their diagnosis. Children of parents with PTSD may also be negatively impacted.
There’s actually research suggesting children of parents or caregivers who have poor mental health are more likely to have poor overall health or deal with mental or emotional disorders themselves.
When kids see their parents experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it can be scary for them. They may not understand what’s going on, which might make them feel nervous or anxious.
If a child has a parent that dissociates, they may take it personally and feel like their parent doesn’t care for them or want to be around them.
To cope, a kid who has a parent with PTSD may start to act like the parent and show signs of secondary traumatization. Or they might try to act more like an adult to fill any gaps left by the parent dealing with PTSD. All of this can lead to mental health issues, problems at school and more.
One study has found that children of parents with PTSD have an increased likelihood of showing behavioral problems, including aggressive behaviors, anxiety, depression and challenges with social relationships.
The effect of parental PTSD on children can be great. Because of this and for many other reasons, if you are dealing with PTSD, getting treatment is important. When you are better able to manage your PTSD, you can better be there for your child, will avoid the transmission of trauma to your child and can enjoy parenthood more thoroughly.
There are many treatment options for those with a trauma history. It is best to consult with a mental health professional to determine what treatment may be right for you.
This particular form of therapy can be helpful to those dealing with PTSD. With CBT, you’ll work with a mental health professional to identify negative thought patterns that may contribute to your symptoms. Then you’ll figure out ways to change those behaviors.
There are different types of cognitive behavioral therapy that can be used to counteract PTSD symptoms. One is called exposure therapy, which involves exposing yourself to the source of your trauma.
This could mean writing down what happened, going to the place the trauma occurred or recounting it to your therapist. This will all be done gradually and with the help of a healthcare provider so you don’t re-traumatize yourself.
Another form of CBT is called cognitive restructuring. When you’ve been traumatized, it can make your memory a little loose and fuzzy. As a result, you might be missing part of what happened or may remember it differently from what actually occurred. In cognitive restructuring, you’ll work with a professional to assess the facts and try to gain a new perspective.
Additionally, if your PTSD has impacted your family, you might consider family therapy. This will give everyone a chance to talk through how they’re feeling and find the support they need.
This form of therapy has become more buzzy recently. When you do EMDR, you focus on the trauma that sparked your PTSD while also engaging in something called bilateral stimulation. This means you’ll do certain eye movements or tap your knee. The idea is that it can reduce the emotional response tied to what happened.
In conjunction with therapy, medication is sometimes used to treat PTSD. Usually, antidepressants are prescribed to help with PTSD symptoms.
Some medications that may be used for PTSD include sertraline, fluoxetine and venlafaxine. A mental health professional can assess your symptoms and help you determine if a medication may be able to help.
If you’re dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or any other mental health issues, it might be challenging to be the kind of parent you want to be. But finding ways to limit your symptoms can help.
Hers offers online consultations with healthcare providers that make it easy to get your mental health needs met. Get started today.