PTSD can impact every member of your family or close community, including children and youth. Many of the coping strategies for Families and friends can help children and youth, but it is important to be aware of reactions and strategies that are specific to them. Here you’ll find information and resources for children with a family member experiencing PTSD, and coping tips for children dealing with secondary traumatic stress.

Reactions

Children and youth are sensitive to their surroundings, and especially to their family’s dynamics. Each child will react differently when a parent is diagnosed with PTSD. Some of the most common reactions your child may have are:

  • Increased feelings of anxiety and worry
  • Feeling emotionally detached from their loved ones
  • Feeling responsible for their family member’s anger
  • Becoming hypervigilant to avoid triggering their family member’s PTSD symptoms
  • Taking on the role of a parent or caregiver
  • Acting much younger than their age
  • Isolating themselves from their friends and family
  • Overachieving in order to please loved ones
  • Behaving poorly at school or in social settings
  • Showing psychosomatic symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches, and fatigue

Talking about PTSD

The best thing you can do is talk to your child – let them know that everything is going to be okay. Make sure they know that:

  • It is not their fault
  • It is not their problem to fix
  • Their job is to be a child
  • They are tremendously loved
  • The adults in their lives are working towards solutions

Teach them about your family member’s diagnosis by explaining some of the symptoms of PTSD. Use examples that they may have already observed: “Because of Mom’s injury, she is very uncomfortable in crowded places, and she may seem impatient and in a hurry to leave.”

Some helpful resources for these conversations are:

Be careful about which details you share about the event that caused the trauma. It is more important to talk about what is happening in the present.

Secondary traumatic stress

Causes

In some situations, your child might develop secondary traumatic stress. It is important to note that all family members and friends can experience this form of traumatic stress. Each child is unique, but these are examples of situations that could lead to the development of secondary stress:

  • Their imagination leads them to create their own story or narrative about how their family member came to experience PTSD.
  • They hear details about traumatic event(s) from their family member.
  • They copy their family member’s behaviours in an effort to connect with them.
  • They re-enact their family member’s trauma when playing.

Symptoms

In addition to a child or youth’s reactions towards a family member experiencing PTSD (listed above), be on the lookout for behavioural cues that indicate your child may need additional support, such as:

  • Lack of participation in social or school activities
  • Difficulties in paying attention
  • Responding to situations with emotions that are disproportionate to the circumstances
  • Expressing feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Preoccupation with violence, death, or other “dark” ideas
  • Making major changes to who they hang out with or their activities
  • Experiencing negative changes to sleeping and eating habits
  • Starting or increasing their use of drugs, alcohol or other substances

Getting support

Seeking professional help is not to be feared. If you notice any of the behavioural cues listed above, your child may need additional support, reach out to a professional. Below are a few services that are available immediately.

If your child shares thoughts of suicide or exhibits signs of suicide or self-harm, reach out to immediate supports such as 911, your family doctor or another service provider.

If your child is showing signs of emotional distress, contact:

  • Kids Help Phone by calling 1-800-668-6868 or texting 686868
  • CAFKIDS Crisis Texting Service by texting CAFKIDS to 686868
  • Veterans Affairs Canada Assistance Service by calling 1-800-268-7708

If you want to learn more about how to support the well-being of the child or youth in your life, visit: The Kids Help Phone website.

Coping strategies

Incorporating the following strategies into you and your child’s day-to-day may help alleviate some of the challenges they have while dealing with a family member who is experiencing PTSD.

  • Adopt special words or cues for children and youth to talk about their mental health. For example, having a bad day can be expressed as “I’m red today” or “I’m having a dragon day.”
  • Find ways for children and youth to maintain a connection with their family member experiencing PTSD. While going to a sporting event may be too challenging right now, you can have a “popcorn and movie night” at home or play a boardgame together.
  • Plan activities just for your child. This gives them something to look forward to without the worry of how their family member will react.
  • Establish and maintain a household routine that is consistent and predictable. This will create a sense of stability for everyone in the home, including yourself.

A connection box can be a good way to revisit special times together when a parent is away from home. Your child can bring out their connection box whenever they miss their family member or want to feel more connected to them.

Creating a connection box is a shared activity between your child or youth and their affected family member.

  • Step 1: Find a box
  • Step 2: Choose items to put in the box together, such as photographs, a favourite item belonging to their family member, or a book they always read together.
  • Step 3: Decorate the box together.

 

Creating the box together will go a long way in making it more meaningful for your child or youth. It is important to be mindful of the energy needed to do this activity and to think through a plan in case it becomes overwhelming.

It is important for your child to understand that all of their emotions – anger, disappointment, fear – are valid and normal. Here are some tips to help you support your child with their emotions:

  • Be patient, understanding and supportive. Being there for the children and youth in your life, actively listening to their thoughts and concerns, and reassuring them can help them navigate their experiences and feelings.
  • Be fair but firm. Parenting or supporting children and youth can be tough at the best of times. It is important to recognize that the children and youth in your life may be dealing with the situation and their stress as best they can, even if they are acting out from time to time. Show them they are loved and supported, while also ensuring that you maintain clear and consistent boundaries about what is acceptable behaviour and what is unacceptable.
  • Don’t blame or villainize the family member experiencing PTSD.

Find more resources

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