One common treatment for PTSD used by the Department of Veterans Affairs is prolonged-exposure therapy (PE). Because veterans with PTSD often try to avoid anything that is associated with the trauma or reminds them of the trauma, PE helps the veteran to face their fear of their trauma by reimagining it out loud so that the details then become less fearful and intrusive. In my own treatment, I’ve done this therapy, but facing my trauma in a safe environment is different than doing so in the real world, and even after this therapy, I still have plenty of avoidant behaviors when I’m at home. Still, knowing why the triggers are being activated and how to mitigate them has helped me gain more control over my life.
What helps me to heal may help my children as well. If I show them that I’m acknowledging my trauma, and working through it, they’ll pick up on that, just as they pick up on my avoidant behaviors, Brothers tells me. Even while they’re too young for me to tell them just what I went through in the war, they can sense if I’m avoiding things that are difficult, or dealing with them head-on.
While I was speaking with Casey Taft, a staff psychologist at the National Center for PTSD, he noted that avoidance can worsen the bonds between parents and children. If the mother is the primary caregiver, then her mental health would particularly impact the children, he says. Taft suggests that instead of avoidance techniques, parents with PTSD should try to communicate openly with their children about what they’re going through. Teaching healthy ways of managing emotions or feelings, he says, creates a strong bond between the parent with PTSD and the children.
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The other day, my son Bowen came into our bedroom while I was laying on the bed with my back to the door and jumped on me, shouting, “Hey Mom!” I reacted immediately, spinning around and grabbing him by his shoulder. I firmly told him to never do that again, and he asked me why. I calmly said, “Remember where Mommy was a long time ago?”
“Is this an Army thing?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “You cannot sneak up on me like that. I get really scared because someone used to sneak up on me like that in Iraq.”
He gave me a hug, kissed me, and quietly said into my ear, “Okay, Mommy, I won’t try to scare you again.”
When I told this story to Taft, he said that this was exactly the open communication that should happen between parents with PTSD and their children. He stressed that it is important that parents seek treatment for PTSD, to try to work through the traumatic events, but also that they have honest conversations about things the parent is working through in therapy, so that others in the family do not feel as though they are tiptoeing around.
Wilcox agrees that being open with my kids about what I’m going through will likely have a positive effect on their development. “All kids and all families go through difficult times, so one of the things we want our children to learn is: What do you do when you go through difficult times?” she says. By being open about how I cope with the hard things that have happened to me, she says, I’m “giving them a huge, wonderful lesson in life.”
Zachary and Bowen will be shaped by my past. We are all shaped by our parents. I can’t help that. But if my trauma is going to shape them, I don’t want it to shape them into a negative version of myself. I want my trauma to become a tool to help them handle their own issues in life; to make them a stronger, better version of myself. Isn’t that what every parent hopes for?
Julie Beck contributed reporting to this article.