How to support children

PTSD can impact every member of the family and/or friend circle, including children and youth. While each child or youth is unique and will respond to their family member’s condition in their own ways, some common reactions include:

  • Worrying, feeling anxious,
  • Feeling disconnected or emotionally detached from their loved one or other family members and friends,
  • Feeling responsible for their family member’s anger,
  • Becoming hypervigilant in an effort not to trigger symptoms or to minimize symptoms in their family member,
  • Parentifying – taking on the role of a parent or caregiver,
  • Regressing to a younger age,
  • Isolating – spending time alone, not wanting to invite friends over because they don’t know the mood their family member will be in,
  • Overachieving (in order to please loved ones),
  • Social, behavioural, and school issues,
  • Showing psychosomatic symptoms – for example, stomach aches, headaches, fatigue that may result from stress or anxiety.

How to talk to children or youth about mental health

Talk to them at an age-appropriate level about their family member’s diagnosis. Use resources to help explain: Why is daddy like he is? A booklet to help explain PTSD to children.

Can I catch it like a cold? A book to help parents and caregivers explain depression to children:

Do not share too many details about traumatizing event(s). It is more important to talk about the impact of the event.

Key messages to share with children and youth:

  • It is not your fault,
  • It is not your problem to fix,
  • Your job is to be a child or youth,
  • You are loved,
  • We are doing our best to address problems.

If possible, explain 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.”

Tips and strategies

  • Adopt special words or cues for children and youth to talk about mental health. For example, having a bad day can be expressed as “I’m red today” or “I’m having a dragon day.”
  • Normalize their feelings. It is ok to be mad, disappointed, scared, proud, or feel happy even if their family member isn’t feeling happy.
  • Find new 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, making popcorn and watching a game, or playing a boardgame may be just as fun.
  • In addition to planning activities with the child or youth’s family member, it is also important to plan separate activities for them to look forward to without worrying that their family member may be triggered.
  • 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 as needed is important to help them navigate their experiences and feelings.
  • Be fair but firm. Parenting and/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, which may lead them to act 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 and unacceptable behaviour. Engage with them in meaningful ways as best you can.
  • Try to establish and maintain a household routine that is consistent and predictable. This will help to create a sense of stability for everyone in the home, including yourself!
  • Don’t blame or villainize the family member experiencing PTSD.
  • Create a “connection box” for when your family member is not up to engaging or is away for treatment

It can be challenging for children and youth to connect with a family member who is experiencing PTSD. For example, receiving treatment might mean that their family member is away or not around as much. Their symptoms and behaviours might also make them absent in other ways (that is, physically present but not available).

Connection box

A connection box can be a good way to keep that link, by providing an opportunity to revisit special times together. Your child or youth 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. Some suggestions include: Something that smells like their family member, something to snuggle, photographs, something they made together, a significant or favourite item of their family member, a memento of an outing or occasion together, or a favourite story book.

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.

Benefits that you might not have considered

PTSD in your family and/or friend circle can bring its own set of challenges, but it also provides some opportunities that other families may not have. For example, it gives you a context in which to teach the children and youth in your life about mental health. It gives children and youth skills in understanding their own feelings and in how to maintain their mental wellness. It provides hands-on experiences with a wide range of emotions and teaches empathy, caring, and compassion.

Children and youth can experience symptoms of PTSD, too

The children and youth in your life may experience “secondary traumatic stress,” where they begin to show signs of PTSD, like their affected family member. Just as not everyone who has experienced trauma will go on to develop PTSD, not all children and youth will develop secondary stress. It is important to note that all family members and friends can experience this form of traumatic stress.

There are various ways that secondary traumatic stress might occur in the children and youth in your life. All these situations can potentially lead them to develop their own stress and stress response:

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

Understanding when you might need to seek additional support

There are many supports available to help children and youth navigate the experience of living with someone with PTSD. Seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness. It is not always immediately clear when a child or youth is in need of additional support, but there are various behavioural changes to look out for:

  • No longer participating in social or school activities,
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention,
  • Responding to situations with emotions that seem out of proportion to the circumstance and to their “usual” behaviour,
  • Expressing feelings of sadness or hopelessness,
  • Becoming preoccupied with violence or other “dark” materials (e.g., death),
  • Experiencing major changes in their social activities or friendships (e.g., no longer hanging out with their usual friends),
  • Experiencing changes in sleeping and eating habits,
  • Using drugs, alcohol, or other substances.

It is important to reach out for immediate support if the child or youth in your life is sharing thoughts of suicide or showing signs that they have harmed themselves.

If the child or youth in your life 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

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

Resources

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the Family for Parents with Young Children

References