My father was drafted to the frontlines of Vietnam at age 18. It was his first trip anywhere. When he returned to his small town in the mountains of Virginia, my family was thankful to have our soldier safely home. What we didn’t know is that a part of him had been lost.
His symptoms of PTSD were so severe that he spent a large part of my childhood locked in his room, gravitating between depression and rage, disconnected from my mother and me. My family and I never talked about the war or my father’s behaviors. Perhaps we subconsciously believed we could will them away by pretending everything was fine. Little did I know back then, we were creating the worst possible scenario for my family’s (and especially my father’s) healing.
Thirty years later, I’d risk asking my father about the war and about his PTSD. I had a hunch that it might be the key to understanding my own suffering. It was only when my family broke the silence about our invisible wounds of war that we finally began to heal.
This is what I wish we’d known back then, and is my advice to parents struggling with wartime PTSD:
1. Acknowledge your family’s truth, and be open and honest with each other.
When a family is silent or avoids discussions about events, situations, thoughts, or emotions, anxiety for everyone-and especially for children-increases. Children and spouses deserve to know the reasons for your difficulties, and they need to know they’re not to blame. How much a parent discloses should be dependent upon a child’s age and maturity.
Listen to each other with compassion-and without judgment. Even if you don’t understand how your family members feel, they are still entitled to their feelings. And remember that what seems minor to an adult can be colossal to a child. Managing your family’s stress will be much easier if everyone feels they can share their fears and concerns and have a positive outcome.
2. Learn more about the symptoms of PTSD and how these symptoms may influence behavior.
Look up the symptoms of PTSD. Memorize them. Read all you can about them. Talk to others-particularly veterans-who share your experiences. Find out how PTSD affects them. Spend some quiet time reflecting on how it affects you. Encourage your spouse and children to reach out to other spouses and children of veterans.
What triggers your symptoms? Write these trigger points down, and discuss them with your spouse and children. It is only fair that everyone in the family unit be aware of these trigger points. Once you’ve identified your triggers, be intentional about avoiding them. If watching war movies triggers your symptoms, stop watching war movies. If loud noises are an issue for you, do not attend your town’s yearly fireworks display. Taking care of yourself-and honoring your own feelings and emotions-is the best thing you can do to take care of your family.
Have a plan you can implement when your PTSD symptoms arise. Maybe it’s telling everyone that “Daddy (or Mommy) is feeling very upset right now, and needs to spend some time alone.” Maybe your plan includes practicing controlled breathing, doing yoga, using positive affirmations (“I’m okay. I’m safe. I’m relaxed.”), or visualizing happy thoughts. Your family should have a plan too.
3. Reach out to others
You are not on this journey alone, though it may feel that way sometimes. Keep your friends and family close. Commit to spending fun downtime with them, and establish daily routines for you and your family. Avoid spending excessive amounts of time by yourself.
Reassure your family members as much as you can. Tell them “I love you.” Say it to yourself. Be patient and kind. Remember to laugh.
Seek professional help if you need it. You may benefit from individual psychotherapy, and the entire family may find family therapy useful. Spouses and children may also benefit from individual therapy.
Be especially cognizant of the behaviors of your children. Children often mimic their parents’ behaviors and are particularly sensitive to stress. Do what you can to create a positive environment for your family. Just as relaxation is contagious, so is stress. Psychotherapy can help all family members learn relaxation techniques and coping mechanisms to better manage stress.
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