A Veteran Wonders: How Will My PTSD Affect My Kids?

The trauma of war can harm the children of soldiers once they’re home—but it doesn’t have to.

A mother hugs her children while seeing a violent world that they cannot see.
Jacob Myrick

Bowen screamed, “You’re dead.”

The boys were in the backyard. I had consented to let them play with their Nerf guns. Bowen was chasing Zachary. The bullets whizzed out in automatic fire. Bowen’s finger was mashed down on the trigger. Zachary was running frantically side to side trying to dodge the foam bullets. They bounced off his back and neck. One deflected off the Murcott tree. Bowen kept firing, and it wasn’t long until his 18-round magazine of foam bullets was empty. Realizing this, Zachary spun around, unhurt by Bowen’s rear assault. He had a full magazine and moved toward Bowen, who was now sprinting away screaming, “Don’t shoot. I’m out of ammo. Don’t shoot.”

Zachary unleashed the bullets from his Nerf gun, one after another. Bowen yelled as he ran to me, “Mom’s base.” He wrapped his arms around me. “I can’t die because Mom is base. You can’t kill me because Mom is base.”

Zach got upset. He threw his Nerf gun on the ground and screamed, “No fair. You can’t make Mom base.”

“Yes, I can. Mom came back from war and didn’t get hurt. She’s like a superhero.”

“Just because Mom has a force field of not dying, doesn’t mean she’s base.”

“Ya-huh, if I hold her, I can’t die.” Bowen looked up at me. “Right, Mom?”

Years have gone by since my return from Iraq. My children are in elementary school, my time in the war was 10 years ago, and yet, the war followed me home in the guise of combat PTSD, wrapping itself around me like another one of my children. As I stood there that day, Bowen stuck to my knees, my mind reeled: What have I done to them?

War can shape, create, and sometimes destroy generations. Younger generations, fully aware of what befell the generation before them, sometimes seem to become hell-bent on repeating history. But the truth of the matter is that war not only changes the soldier; it changes their family as well. My boys are too young to actually remember my war, and yet they appear to be following in my footsteps. Pictures of fighting bad guys drawn in crayon are affixed to my refrigerator with magnets. When asked on Career Day what they wanted to be when they grew up, they proudly asserted that they want to join the Army after college.

I worried that I was passing down my combat experience like a mother passes down half of her DNA makeup. My children are different than they would have been if I, their caregiver, nurturer, and life giver, had not served in the Iraq War. There is a military routine to our days that is so ingrained from my training, it might as well be another strand in my genetic makeup. Their lives have been shaped by my PTSD triggers and my combat experience. The children of people who’ve experienced trauma sometimes inherit that trauma themselves, and I worry about how exactly my experiences will affect my kids.

Miriam L. Vogel, a child Holocaust survivor, explains inherited trauma, or trans-generational trauma, as an occurrence “when it is the client’s parents or other adult caregivers who have experienced the traumatic events in response to which this person (the client) now suffers inexplicable symptoms of fear, anxiety, depression, flashbacks of things never experienced, nightmares, and obsessions with phenomena out of the range of their experience.”

My PTSD manifests in the form of triggers that bring on memories or recollections from my time in Iraq. The smell of roadkill can trigger the memory of bagging and tagging blown-up soldiers. Loud explosions, door slams, or even a book slamming on a desk can bring back memories of the constant bombing of Camp Liberty in Iraq. As a result, my children have never fully experienced a July Fourth or Memorial Day with fireworks. They avoid creating loud bangs and even sometimes jump or startle at noises just as easily as I do. They have learned to associate loud explosions with bombings and war rather than celebrations and festivities. I started to worry that my kids were starting to pick up on my avoidance techniques.

I have also noticed my children having emotional responses, triggers, to things or events that they have never witnessed. My children have witnessed me suffering from flashbacks many times. I remember Zachary coming up to me when he was five years old, telling me that he had a nightmare about a man trying to shoot him. Though my son has never been exposed to violent behavior on television or in real life, and though I’ve never told him about the violence I witnessed in the war, he suddenly had dreams of someone trying to shoot him while he ran away.

Doris Brothers, a psychologist, psychoanalyst, and cofounder of the Training and Research in Intersubjective Self-Psychology Foundation in New York, says she doesn’t subscribe to the theory of inherited trauma. But often, she says, children want to be similar to their parents, and so this desire to create “sameness” might lead to them emulating some of their parents’ unhealthy behaviors that stem from trauma. It may be that my children have been replicating my dissociative behavior, such as avoiding fireworks or loud noises, as a way to connect with me.

* * *

The other day, I asked my children what we do that makes our family different than others. They looked at me oddly, as if to silently ask, “We’re not normal?” So I rephrased the question. “What rules do we have in our family?” They dutifully recited:

  • We don’t play hide-and-seek.
  • We don’t scare Mommy.
  • We don’t play war.
  • We don’t talk in the car when Mommy’s driving.
  • We don’t shout in the living room because the ceilings echo.
  • We don’t pretend to have a gun in our hand.
  • We don’t pretend like we’re dying when we play fight.
  • We leave Mommy alone when she’s upset.
  • We make sure, when we go out to eat, that Mommy gets to sit in the corner.
  • We don’t talk about dying or killing anyone.
  • We don’t point at amputees when Mommy has to take us to the VA.
  • We don’t touch the knives in Mommy’s purse.
  • We don’t talk about people being crazy.
  • We respect the dead on Memorial Day.

Their answers concerned me. I had clearly made my trauma part of their lives. And they were beginning to build responses to my fear into their everyday: nightmares, routines they did even when I wasn’t around like making sure to scan a room for exits or natural threats, as well as unspoken guidelines that they knew to follow when they were with me. Robert Rosenheck and Pramila Nathan, in their article “Secondary Traumatization in Children of Vietnam Veterans,” further exemplified my concern when they noticed in a case study that the 10-year-old son of a Vietnam combat veteran had intense emotional connection to his father’s trauma, as well as increased aggression, anxiety, and guilt. Rosenheck and Nathan suggested that the 10-year-old child in their study showed signs of internalizing the trauma his father had survived. They surmised that the inherited trauma from the son was due to the emotional distance of the father.

Patricia Wilcox, the vice president of Klingberg Family Centers and an administrator at the Traumatic Stress Institute, said that a parent’s PTSD can affect their children if the PTSD makes the parent “distant or explosive.” “The PTSD is one thing,” she said, “but then the events and the parent’s surroundings from then on are equally significant. It’s not going to be something that’s automatic, where anyone has to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m doomed, and my kids are doomed.’ The effect on the children will depend on things like whether the parent gets treatment and whether they’re surrounded by a loving and safe environment.”

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.

* * *

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.