Understanding PTSD: 5 Ways to Teach a Military Child About Mental Health

Written by Susannah Wruk


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is arguably one of the most difficult challenges for veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that anywhere from 11-30% of veterans will experience PTSD in their lifetime. While in the throes of understanding PTSD themselves, many military parents with PTSD may also struggle with the question, ‘how do you explain PTSD to a child?’ Here are five steps toward helping children understand PTSD in a loved one.


1. Explore Different Resources

Just talking about PTSD with kids can be hard. A parent with PTSD may find they don’t know what to say or how to explain things so their child can understand. Thankfully, there are many resources available to help like videos or children’s books about PTSD. These resources are a good starting place to make initial discussions about PTSD less intimidating.


2. Parents With PTSD, Choose to Share What is Right for You and Your Kids

Kids have varying levels of understanding and emotional maturity, and it’s important to take this into account when choosing what to share about PTSD and traumatic experiences. Parents should only share details that they feel comfortable with and should not feel like they have to tell their children everything.

It’s also important to keep in mind that any details shared should be developmentally appropriate for your children. It may be helpful to take some time to think through what you want to tell them and write down some notes before having a conversation with your kids. Kids understand more than you think, so don’t shy away from sharing thoughts and feelings, but share what you feel is right for your family.


3. Be Open to Questions

Children are naturally curious and may ask some uncomfortable questions when trying to understand PTSD in a loved one. When answering these questions, it’s okay and healthy to establish boundaries about what details you are and are not comfortable talking about. The important thing is that your child knows that you are there for them; allowing them to ask questions may make them feel more secure and cared for as they try to navigate learning about and understanding PTSD.


4. Model Healthy Emotional Behavior Whenever Possible

Kids look to their parents and caregivers for stability and direction, and it can be tricky when working through the complex emotional and psychological struggles that PTSD brings. However, modeling healthy habits such as taking breaks when you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, apologizing for outbursts, or setting boundaries about what you are and aren’t comfortable with talking about, can help your children feel more secure. Seeing these healthy habits modeled can also help children learn to regulate their own emotions.


5. Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help

Many veterans struggle with seeking help. Some don’t know where or how to find resources. Others may feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit that they are struggling. However, it’s important to know that you’re not alone, and understanding PTSD can be overwhelming.

Since so many families struggle with PTSD and its effects, many resources are available. For example, the ASYMCA’s Operation Hero program helps military children better cope with the realities of having a parent in the military — including issues around PTSD. Designed for children in grades 2-8, Operation Hero uses independent and group activities (such as art, journaling, guided discussions, and more to help military children express themselves in a safe and understanding environment.

Another good option is family therapy or counseling, which is available for free for military families. Therapy can help children better understand what their parent is going through and can help provide parents with resources and support.

PTSD is never easy and can be even more complicated with a family, but seeking help and support can be the first step to healing and a healthier tomorrow.

Life can be stressful and isolating for military children across the United States. Whether it’s worrying about a parent struggling with PTSD, deployment, an unexpected PCS move, or another new school, military children deal with unique challenges that civilian children don’t have to face. But when children face the difficulties of military life, they need someone who understands and is there to help.

That’s where the ASYMCA comes in.

We’re there to provide meaningful programs designed to help military children cope and adjust to the challenges of military life, and generous supporters like you make that possible.


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