Post-traumatic disorder, as with many mental illnesses, affects more than just the individual – it affects the entire family system. Of course we are aware of how it affects the spouse when one partner is struggling with depression, or anxiety. We are aware of how children struggling when their caregivers are unavailable to them due to illness and this includes mental illness. Post-traumatic stress disorder is no different and it can cause quite a disruption to the family as a whole and to children’s lives in particular.
The world can be a scary place at the best of times, but more so when mum is also feeling frightened and anxious. When children witness their parents feeling scared they automatically begin to feel scared and insecure too. They may feel confused and worried about their parent, as well as about the world around them.
And when children struggle emotionally they don’t always know how to tell us so they begin to act out in ways that communicate their distress so they may struggle at school academically or behaviourally. They may even begin to withdraw from friends and family.
So what can we do to help children cope when their mother is struggling with PTSD?
Create a safe place to talk to your children.
Allow them to feel free enough to express their feelings, concerns and fears. Listen to what they are telling you and support what they are going through. Don’t try to change how they are feeling by telling them what they should and should not feel. Instead just focus on providing a safe place for them to express themselves.
Make sure you explain things in an appropriate and clear way.
Your children need to know what is happening, but you need to explain this at a level that is appropriate for them to understand. Younger children will have difficulty understanding the concept of PTSD so try to explain it in simpler terms that makes what is happening clear and understandable. Almost all children can empathise with feeling afraid of the monster under the bed – try liken your explanation to feeling scared about the monster and not wanting to think about the monster etc.
Make sure it is clear that it is not their fault.
While this really seems like an obvious point, we take for granted how children believe that many things are because of them. Sometimes it is really important to reiterate that this has nothing to do with them and it is not their fault that this is happening or that mummy is feeling, or behaving this way. Make sure they know that it is also not their responsibility to fix you or the family.
Keep the details to a minimum.
While it is important to be honest to a point, try to keep the details of the trauma to a minimum. You do not want to traumatise your children with the reality of what has happened. You only want to explain enough so that they can understand why you sometimes feel tearful, irritated or afraid.
Make sure you have lots of fun and quality time too.
While it may be really difficult to get out there, try to have some fun and quality time with your kids and family. It is important that you get back into the swing of things but that your children see that things have not changed all that much – mum is still able to have fun and be mum!
Children’s emotional lives are rich and complex and witnessing a parent feeling anything less than all powerful and strong can be quite a shock to little people. It is not a bad thing for them to learn that parents are human too, but make sure that they still feel safe and secure and are not taking on your anxiety and fear.