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Sunday, March 3, 2013

PTSD and children

Lately, I've been wondering why some people experience intense hardships and traumas and others do not.  For whatever reason, these experiences are brought upon a person throughout the course of their lives and never seem to go away until they finally face it and see what it is.  In most families, there are many family patterns that are passed down from generation to generation: customs, traditions, religion, biases, prejudices, as well as the framework for how we experience our lives.  Traumas get passed down too.  Children who witness abuse or violence in the home, say for instance, a woman who repeatedly gets involved with abusive men, will often repeat these relationship patterns when they're older until they either become a victim to the same abusive patterns their parents had, or they finally take a stand and start asking the deep questions to uncover the darkness within.  When a man or a woman finds themselves in the midst of crippling traumatic events, they question from the very depths of their being, 'Why did this come to me??'  Their lives come to a screeching halt, the way they are living seems so disconnected to the world around them because they've been placed by situation, choice, and circumstance, to confront what for generations has not been confronted and it has fallen on their shoulders to bring clarity and healing to deeply rooted challenges that has disrupted the harmony, balance, and quality of their lives and the lives of their loved ones.  Most of the time, the person who is doing the asking is so involved in the trauma they are not personally receiving the benefit of their own asking.  Life is moving all around them while they appear to be standing still.  And yet, because those people are asking the deep questions, and seeking the answers to those questions, the future generations, or even the present generations who are not blocking the receiving the seeker is giving, are receiving the benefit of that person's asking.  It takes great courage to face the truth, and understand why things evolved the way they did.  The only way to reverse the trajectory of the histories of pain in-bedded within families, is to get to the root cause of the problem, shine a light on it, pull it out, and then let the light behind it come in.  Darkness doesn't go away by keeping it hidden in the dark.  Darkness goes away when you turn on the Light.

I recognize now that I have been influenced by some form of PTSD all my life.  I've had this secret love affair with it from the moment I was born.  It's something my family had, almost like it was genetically encoded into our family's DNA.  Even though there were many years where life was very good, particularly my high school and college years, this problem lurked in the shadows, just waiting for the right time to revel itself and throw everything upside-down in my life.  How many generations back this goes, I don't know, but something in me tells me this goes back at least 7 generations.  I even coaxed PTSD into my life by getting in trouble in the Air Force, which kept me locked up in the past for making what I believed was an unforgivable mistake, and thus I was riddled with guilt and shame for over a decade for the actions I'd done in my past.  Was PTSD experienced on both sides of my family?  Yes, although details on my mother's side are not as obvious as on my father's side.   What I do know is that my grandfather had it.  I'm pretty sure my father had it, and I know I certainly had it.  But, I don't see that as a negative, not now anyway.  See, my grandfather had to do what he had to do, my father had to do what he had to do, my family had to do what they had to do,and my ex-fiance had to do what she had to do, in order to get me into a position where I could heal this and receive the healing.  I've done it.  That's why this is so important to me.  It's personal.

I want to talk to you a little about the effects PTSD has on children, and why it's so important to recognize what some of the symptoms are so you can take appropriate action to avert some of the long-term consequences if it goes untreated.  According to an article written on the Family-Of-a-Vet website by Brannan Vines, the wife of an OIF veteran, 39% of those who live with a veteran suffering from PTSD will develop secondary PTSD.  Children are particularly affected by this, especially in their most formative stages when they are absorbing everything like a sponge.  Young children don't understand what's going on or why their parent is reactive, aggressive, or distant, and will often blame themselves for their parent's PTSD outburst.  Along with that, children who suffer from secondary PTSD can become extremely depressed or sad or filled with anxiety; they can become lonely, and withdrawal from loved ones; they can engage in self-destructive behaviors and/or cause destruction of property;  they begin to feel the parent who suffers from PTSD doesn't love them and begin copying that parent's attitude and behavior in order to re-connect to them on an emotional level; a child may be forced to take on more than they should or are capable of at their young age; and/or a child may find themselves trying to fill a parent's place within the family because there is a void that needs to be filled.

Children are particularly susceptible to the hyperarousal symptoms exhibited by the person who suffers from PTSD.  Because they are children, they feel it very closely and intensely, and can sense the anxiety, anger, aggressiveness, and hyper-sensitivity that occurs in waves.  As a consequence, children, because they are so adaptive to their environment, will take on a hyper-vigilant position, "mirroring" the parent with PTSD, and depending upon the individual personality, can become very passive and non-aggressive so as not to upset their PTSD parent, or they can do the opposite, and act out more than they should and get into a lot of trouble.

As children get older, during their teenage years and even into their twenties, the long term effects of these early traumas that induced secondary PTSD truly begin to show themselves: they may have a hard time connecting to people in relationships and when in a relationship, repeat the very things they witnessed with their parents; they may fight with their siblings and try to harm them; they may use drugs and alcohol to escape from their now unconscious pain; school becomes less and less important to them, and their grades and effort may significantly diminish as they are suddenly getting into trouble and partaking in risky and violent acts.  For others, their lives are lived in quiet desperation.  They are never completely happy or satisfied or fulfilled with their lives, as if they are haunted by some dark memory of their past of which they are unable to break free.  Chronically depressed, fearful of the future, haunted by the past, anxious that their lives are not what they could be, constantly bombarded by the thoughts and triggers of the past which keep them held hostage to incessant painful memories, these are all hallmarks of adults who have suffered from some form of PTSD in their lives - these, among other symptoms, are the long-term effects which handicap these adults from being who they truly are and are capable of becoming.    

If you have young children and you're living with someone who has PTSD or you think has PTSD, watch their behavior and see if they begin to exhibit any of the symptoms which I described above.  If they do, get them some help.  There are many wonderful resources out there, family therapy groups, etc., that can help to allow your child to process his or her feelings, and help him or her to understand what is going on in the other parent.  Communication is key with a child as well.  Be honest with them, within reason, and answer their questions as best you can.  Don't try to hide the family problem, be open, alert, and proactive to getting children into a healthy place so that they are not negatively affected by the parent with PTSD.  Things that are not addressed openly and brought to consciousness are then buried in the unconsciousness and are later brought to us as fate in order for it to be healed.  That can be an enormously painful process for the adult, one that can be avoided if you address the problem before it takes root.

As for us adults, it becomes a little more complicated.  We have the ability to make choices, and although our lives may have been influenced by these events beyond our control, if we blame or accuse others for the problems in our lives, it removes us from having to make the choices necessary to change the trajectory our lives are going.  However we got the problem, it's our problem now, and this goes not just for PTSD, but for all the challenges in our lives.  Blaming others for our issues keeps us in a victim mentality, and only feeds our ego, which likes to be a victim.  When you begin to understand that everyone is innocent in these situations, everyone was damaged, a wave of love and compassion will sweep over you, and true healing can begin.  I'm not asking you to get to that point if you're not ready to.  There may be a lot of pain to work through, and people may have deeply hurt or harmed you in horrible ways, or you may have done some pretty horrible things that you feel are unforgivable, I understand that.  But as adults, we can either let the past define us as who we are, or we can make the conscious choice to heal and make peace with our past, learn and grow from it, and become something better.

Some of you may be thinking just because someone experienced PTSD, secondary PTSD, or extreme traumas at some point in the course of their lives doesn't give them the excuse to not take responsibility for the choices they made in their lives that led them to where they are now.  I agree, to a point.  Yes, we must take full responsibility for all the choices and decisions we made in our lives, and why we are where we are now.  However, when choices are unconsciously or consciously influenced by the negative impact these traumas had, we often do not make the best choice.  Someone who is living a life of quiet desperation will make a choice to get a job, but it may not be the job he wants, nor will he think he is worthy of anything better because his choices are being influenced by his past.  They are not influenced or drawn in the direction of what he loves or would love to be doing.  Hence, his past controls his life.  People who suffer from or have suffered from PTSD are looking at life with the lens fogged up.  They have a difficult time overcoming their past trauma and so their choices are limited to the narrow vision they have of themselves.  Clearing these past traumas up, frees up the mind to make better, healthier choices, and your life begins to open up in ways you could not possibly have imagined.

I like to think of it as a garden.  If suddenly you found out that the soil you'd been planting all your fruits and vegetables in was contaminated, and although occasionally it did bear fruit, the fruit wasn't all it could be.  Now that you have this awareness - ah, this is why my efforts have been in vain because there is something in the soil that needs to be cleared out - you take the time to clear up the soil, remove all the toxins and weeds that may have damaged your efforts to grow a beautiful garden, re-fertilize it with nutrients and other good stuff to make the land fertile - and then you start planting again.  You remove all the stuff that no longer serves you and has kept you from making your garden into the garden you want it to be.  Well, its the same thing with your thoughts, emotions, and feelings.  That's your internal garden.  You have to look at what's been contaminating your soul, remove it, clear out all the weeds, feed your soul with what truly nourishes it, change your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and then, re-plant.  Your choices will then be influenced by the efforts you took to improve yourself, and your life will reflect the changes you've made.  But you must identify the root cause of your problem, you must get down to the roots, before any substantial changes can be made.

I used to think in order for a son to claim his manhood,  he had to rise up against the father and confront or challenge him.  That's not true for me anymore.  I think a son becomes not only his father's son but also his own man when he rises up to face the challenges his father left behind for him to solve.  We stand on the shoulders of our fathers, they brought us as far as they could take us, and then its up to us to take the next steps forward, and lead our sons and daughters to the point where they take the reins from us to solve the problems we leave for them to find solutions.  That's the conscious process of evolution in individuals, families, communities, and nations, and when we look at it in that way, we begin to understand that when challenges confront us, we are called upon to meet it for the good of all.