A reporter recently asked me what the symptoms of PTSD are for children of veterans.  And I paused, because what basis do I have for answering that question other than my own experience?  I could not think of any books or research that specifically addresses that question; only in the last year has the National Center for PTSD recognized that children suffer from their veteran parents’ PTSD.  Their website says this:

Children of Veterans with PTSD are at higher risk for being depressed and anxious than children of non-combat Veterans. Children may start to have symptoms like the ones the parent has. For example, a child may have nightmares about the parent’s trauma. Children may have PTSD symptoms related to watching their parent’s symptoms. For example, a child might have trouble paying attention at school because she is thinking about her parent’s problems. The impact of a parent’s PTSD symptoms on a child is sometimes called ‘secondary traumatization.’ Since violence occurs more often in the homes of Veterans with PTSD, the children may also develop their own PTSD symptoms.”


While I agree with that, I do not agree with what the website says in a prior paragraph:

“Families of Veterans with PTSD experience more violence than those without PTSD. This includes violent behaviors in children. Children of Veterans with PTSD have more behavior, school, and relationship problems. They are more aggressive and hyperactive than children of Veterans who do not have PTSD.”

While it is true that many veterans with PTSD can behave violently at times, not all veterans with PTSD do.  Not all children of veterans of veterans with PTSD will be more aggressive or hyperactive.  Such sweeping generalizations do a disservice to families who need help but do not see themselves as falling within these categories.

I say this from personal experience. I never  showed aggression or hyperactivity; my father never once acted remotely violently.  Nor did the many WWII veterans I have met and interviewed over the last six years.  We need to consider that PTSD can take forms other than the one the media and governmental agencies highlight.  I believe a more common form of PTSD from war manifests itself in periodic depression, veiled melancholy, brooding, anxiety, suppressed memories, and nightmares.  The veteran is often highly successful in his or her professional life and does show to the outside world any indications of emotional pain.

One WII vet I met, who has never been able to speak of his war experience to his children, still wakes up from nightmares yelling and in a cold sweat.  He went to the VA recently for an evaluation after a VA physician who saw him for a sprained arm suggested,after questioning him about his daily routine, that he might have PTSD.  But the VA psychiatrist, after a twenty-minute evaluation, determined the vet did not have PTSD.

A determination of PTSD seems to involve more opinion than analysis of objective data.  What can a 20-minute observation reveal?  What if the psychiatrist her or himself devalues their emotions, a not uncommon characteristic of highly accomplished medical professionals?  (Much of the three years I spent in law school was a struggle to hold on to my emotional life as doing well on exams and in moot court trials seemed to depend on excising all emotions, to forcing myself to be dispassionate.  And if doctors allowed themselves to care about all their patients, they would soon be spent.)  So the meager signs a new patient might allow himself to reveal to a VA doctor could easily not pass a threshold of symptoms that doctor has established.

All of this is to say that if we have yet to nail down the qualities of PTSD itself, we are even further from defining the characteristics of secondary trauma.  I could speak from my own experience and identify my anxiety, which has increased over the years, my struggle with depression since I was 15, the way I go silent when I feel threatened or insecure, how I expect the worst and reflexively express a negative perspective (the quality that my husband finds most tiresome), how deep inside I see myself as unlovable, as having deserved the physical and emotional abandonment, so I can never rest from doing too much for those I love.

But such a profile becomes problematic, I learned when I first attended an Al-anon meeting two months ago.  My mother became an alcoholic sometime in the five years after my father returned from Germany.  As she left my life when I was five, I never considered the effects of her alcoholism on me (other than abandonment) until I sat through my first Alinon meeting.

Another child of a veteran had encouraged me to go after reading the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Gated Grief.  “Have you ever explored the significance for you of your mother’s alcoholism?” he asked.  At Alinon meetings people take turns speaking, and in my very first meeting as I listened to others speak, I felt like I was hearing my own characteristics described: going silent when people seem to ignore or dismiss me, constant worrying, being pessimistic, doing too much for people I care about.

So what of myself was the consequence of those five years with my mother and what resulted from my father’s repressed trauma?  I thought about what a therapist had told me years before: A family is a system, so when one member of a family has a serious problem, other members will manifest anger in a myriad number of possible behaviors, alcoholism being one of them.  Wine and then scotch enabled my mother to escape her husband’s coldness and absence- both physical and emotional.

We think that the trauma of war flows through the veteran-parent, but we need to also look at the non-veteran spouse, because often their means of coping has as serious consequences for the children as does the veteran’s detachment or rage.

I have not answered the question the reporter raised.  I do not feel that I can speak for any one but myself.  And it is terribly painful to acknowledge the toll of my father’s war on our family, on my brothers and me.  We are not a family.  One brother does not speak to my other brother and myself and has never told us his reasons.  My other brother and I have distance between us, as though hearing the other person’s difficulties stimulates too much pain.  My children have no sense of an extended family on my side.  The lives of my brothers and myself have been warped, so much energy consumed by resisting our sorrow and negativity, by developing strategies to cope.   If that is true of other children of veterans, how much treasure have we lost from our wars?

The Multigenerational Ripple of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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  1. Pingback: Discussing the idea of second generation PTSD | Common Ground Trauma on November 16, 2012


  1. Lisa Rose McCready, June 15, 2010:

    My War Damaged parent was my mother who was in London for all of the war and met my dad during the war — he was in the army (American). I definitely think I have PTSD. As you noted above, my brother and I have no relationship at all. Lisa

  2. Sean, June 18, 2010:

    Very good essay.

    For the record: it’s Al-anon, not alinon.

    Good material in here.

  3. Bella Murphy, July 30, 2011:

    Thank you for sharing this article!! I am a daughter of a Vietnam Veteran who has been diagnosed with PTSD just a few months ago. My father has PTSD from the war and it has effected my whole family in different ways. My dad married my swedish mother and I grew up in Sweden not knowing any one who suffered from PTSD until I moved to the US about 11 years ago. By the grace of God my whole family is still together and communicating. But I went through years of being in the dark, not understanding why our family was so different from any other swedish family who hadn’t experienced war. I would love to read your book and one day I hope to write my own story. I struggle with all those emotions that you just shared in your article. I believe my mother suffered tremendously because of my father’s PTSD. He was never violent against me or my siblings, and he was a very loving father. However, he caused extreme stress in our family’s life, not being able to provide or putting our family in stressful situations. My mother, I believe has PTSD from just living in chaos. I suffer from anxiety, depression, sensitive to loud noise, hyper sensitive to peoples emotions, night terrors etc… I am still trying to understand everything!! My mother and father live in Sweden, but I would love for them to share their story. My dad is about to retire and I think he is ready to share his experiences from the war and how it has effected his wife and children. I am ready to share!!! I know there is healing and forgiveness that can occur by just understanding what really went on as a child. I never thought I was able to forgive
    the pain that I had to suffer growing up, but for the first time I am able to walk freely. I still struggle, but I know why and it doesn’t have to control my life. I didn’t understand for 30 years, but now I do and my hope is to help others. I live in Memphis with my husband and two children. Thanks again for sharing,
    Bella Murphy

  4. Joseph Jarczewski, November 9, 2013:

    I have been looking to find some material relating to children of parents who’ve experienced war.

    My Dad is Polish and was taken to Germany during WW2 as a labourer in order to serve the German war effort. His eldest brother should’ve gone but he wasn’t present at the time. My Mum is Maltese and she lived through the intense bombing period when Malta was consistently bombed for two years.
    They both, no doubt went through a lot and survived. I’m interested to hear from people who’ve grown up with similar backgrounds and how they’ve coped and managed in the midst of that emotional and cultural environment.
    I live in Sydney Australia and haven’t been able to find any such groups apart from the ones that exist in the Jewish communities.
    Would be curious to know about any such groups elsewhere.

    Regards and best wishes.

    Joseph Jarczewski.

  5. Christine Z., March 19, 2014:

    I know this is an old posting but I would like to know if in your research you have seen a family with every generation serving and its effects?

    Both of my grandfathers were in WWII, My father was Vietnam and I was Desert Storm. After just learning about this I am wondering if anyone has looked at this compounding effect. I see the effects on every generation and then it doubled with our own experience.

  6. Kirsten Anker, October 17, 2014:

    My jewish father’s father was killed fighting in the First World War. His mother sruggles during the following diffcult years, leaving him with his grandmother while she worked overseas in earn a stable currency. As Hitler rose to power, my father left Germany for Australia in 1936. Although he also persuaded his mother to join him, he was interned by the Australuan authorities. my mother lived in Sydney during the war and her fiance was killed while flying in Malaysia. It’s difficult to separate out the different factors that influenced my parents and to determine how they influenced my siblings and me: loss of loved ones, loss of country, witnessing violence and destruction of culture and values. I’m sure these things did affect my parents, and compared to the reports of others in this conversation, my parents were argueably witnesses to rather than participants in some of the most violent events of last century.
    If mere witnessing can produce psychological harm, what damage is being done in the contemporary world as we are flooding ourselves with ceaseless images of violence, hatred and breakdown of common values, from the battleground to the streets.
    Joseph: i would be interested in exchanging experiences of growing up in Australia with european migrant parents.

  7. Nancy Weres, May 9, 2015:

    I am the daughter of a WWII tail gunner who kept all of his horrible experiences to himself. There was no treatment for vets with PTSD at that time. He would drink and womanize away from home. My mother also had PTSD due to the government oppression of the middle class during the Depression. Our home was very quiet, no one talked to each other about anything. My parents divorced when I was in high school. I no longer try to talk to my sisters after years of unsuccessfully trying to please them. I found Al-Anon extremely helpful. Thanks to all those who are researching this problem and trying to help.

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