Parenting with PTSD

Two Ottawa veterans discuss the challenges of parenting while coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. Sophie Desrosiers tells their stories.

Ottawa mom Shawna Roy, a former member of the Canadian Forces, has battled the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder since before her daughters were born.

And now, she says her PTSD prevents her from being the mother 13-year-old Kassondra and 10-year-old Emilee deserve.

Roy regularly misses out on family outings, hides out in their garage for hours, and struggles with severe depression.

“It’s hard because I know the type of person that I can be,” she says, “and I know the type of person that my kids see.”

According to the Canadian Psychological Association, 90-per-cent of Canadians experience trauma at some point in their lives. As a result, nine-per-cent develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Every person affected with PTSD experiences their own set of symptoms, but the most common include episodes of dissociation, extreme anxiety and panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, depression, excessive rage or anger, and suicidal ideation.

But according to Dr. Fotini Zachariades, a psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, a parent struggling with PTSD can still have a healthy, happy relationship  with their children — with some adjustments and awareness.

“One of the most important things is if the parent is seeking appropriate help and is working on recovery,” she says, not only to help with symptoms, but to reassure the child that the situation is being handled.

Melanie Woolley, another Canadian Forces veteran and Ottawa mom living with PTSD, knows very well how important it is to get help.

Before she was diagnosed and in treatment, Woolley’s oldest daughter, 15-year-old Marissah, who was a young child at the time, would witness her mother’s episodes of extreme rage.

Woolley remembers the rage could get so violent she would break dishes or lash out at her husband.

“My older daughter would be horrified,” she says.

“She’d go and hide and cry. It was just horribly unpleasant for her.”

By the time she had her second daughter, nine-year-old Grace, Woolley had been diagnosed and was learning how to cope with her symptoms, creating a less hostile environment for her kids.

Zachariades says parents with untreated PTSD can cause long-term mental health problems in kids, in the form of low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, to name a few.

If a child begins to show signs they may be struggling to cope with their parents’ PTSD, Zachariades recommends reaching out to a family doctor or hospital for help.

She said signs to look for, depending on age, include depression, anxiety, changes in behaviours, self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders, and problems at school or with peers.

And there are other ways to make sure the long-term impact on children is minimal.

Zachariades suggests honest and age-appropriate conversations with kids, though cautions against putting too much focus on the trauma itself, to avoid frightening a child. Instead, the conversation should be about the symptoms.

And Roy, who runs a peer-support group for veterans, says by being open with her daughters, she has found ways to strengthen her bond with them and even get them involved.

“(Emilee) wants to be a dog trainer,” says Roy, who uses a service dog for her own PTSD.

Emilee is currently helping train their new family puppy, who Roy says has the right temperament to work as a therapy dog in her groups.

“When I go to the mall to do training, I’ll have (my service dog) with me and Emilee will handle the puppy,” said Roy.

“She’s doing everything just like me. I’ll show her how to get the puppy to sit, and she’s got treats in her pockets,” she said. “She’s just like a mini-me.”

Meanwhile, Woolley’s youngest daughter has also become more aware of ways she can be involved to help her

“(Grace) likes to have a copy of the grocery list,” she says, noting that an episode of dissociation in a busy grocery store can cause Woolley to become confused and unable to complete the shopping on her own.

The nine-year-old now prepares shopping lists to keep her mother on track when the two go on grocery trips together.

“That’s a perfect example of role-modelling,” said Dr. Zachariades.

“They’re doing two things there. They’ve explained the situation and the symptoms but they’ve also come up with age-appropriate constructive ways (to cope),” she says of both mothers.

“They’re not making the children therapists, but the kids feel like they’re helping out, they’re involved.”