01/24/2013 05:50 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Secondhand Trauma: When PTSD Is a Family Affair

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When PTSD transfers from the battlefield to the home, this disorder quickly becomes a family affair. So set an extra plate at dinner tonight; PTSD is joining you.

One of the things I hear time and time again is that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an isolated condition. If you think that's true, you're not alone; I used to be one of those people. But when I began working with veterans, I discovered something profound: PTSD affects every person in the sufferer's life, from spouses to children to extended family to friends. Secondhand trauma is real, and if it lingers untreated, can be just as scarring as having PTSD yourself. For children, the exposure to PTSD is especially toxic.

Children who see their parents struggle with PTSD typically respond one of three ways. Some take on the role of the rescuer, taking on a parental role to compensate for their parent's difficulties. Other children begin to withdraw when they stop receiving the emotional support they need from mom or day. For a third group of children, the result is secondhand trauma. Through this process, the parent's horrors become the child's horrors, and child lives out his parent's legacy of suffering. Secondhand trauma robs children of their youth, creating a lasting heritage of doubt, mistrust, and a fear of reliving the hurt one's parent has endured.

Any of these three scenarios can damage a child's emotional development. That's why it's so important to include the entire family in a veteran's PTSD treatment. By encouraging an open dialogue among family members and their loved one with PTSD, behavioral therapists such as myself can help happiness become part of the healing process. Children can learn to create joy in spite of the challenges by rediscovering playful moments and using that happiness to reengage with the present. As families struggle to regulate amid PTSD, it's essential that they talk about their feelings and allow space for this joy to creep back in.