Helping Children Caught in the Crossfire at Home

Marilyn Lash, MSW, and Nina Deeds, Brain Injury Journey magazine
Helping Children Caught in the Crossfire at Home

The realization that “our family is different now” comes with new questions, stresses, and uncertainties for children. When a returning parent is diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), children live with a parent who has changed in many ways. The emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social changes can be very upsetting and perplexing to a child. How do you answer their questions:

Why did Daddy get hurt?

Why did Mommy ever have to come home?

Why does Mommy always have headaches?

Why can Daddy yell but I can’t?

Life doesn’t get “back to normal” when a parent comes home from war. With a parent’s return home, not only must the child adjust to this “new” parent but there are also new parenting dynamics between Mom and Dad.

Parenting and caregiving are not mutually exclusive

For the many women and men who are caregivers to spouses or partners diagnosed with PTSD and/or TBI, the stresses are cumulative. They are at serious risk for caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue as they precariously juggle managing a household, keeping the peace, budgeting, holding a job, and being a spouse and parent.

Nina Deeds recalls her personal struggle after her husband came home and was wrestling with the trauma of war. “I was often told that I needed to take care of myself. It wasn’t until I had a few days strung together of snapping at my kids, crying spells, a destroyed house, and my last shower four days ago that I realized the ripple effect that not caring for myself was having on my entire family,” she says. “My children were living with a frazzled, angry, heartbroken mom who was barely functioning. The overwhelming feeling in our home was one of anger, anxiety, and hopelessness.”

A child’s world away from home

Much of the child’s world outside the home revolves around friends and school, so this is where the signs of stress may emerge. Red flags in school are increased anxiety, moodiness, trouble concentrating, lower grades, irritability from poor sleep, unexplained anger at peers and teachers, and skipping school activities. Children may be punished or disciplined for behaviors that teachers describe as laziness, uncaring, inattention, or poor motivation.

The most important question for educators and parents to ask is WHY? not WHAT? The root cause of these changes at school may be the conflicts at home. Finding a teacher, coach, guidance counselor, or psychologist at school who can give support and encouragement to a child can also provide a safe haven for children to acknowledge and deal with their feelings.

Nina recalls that everyday things like a loud classroom, breaking from the normal school routine, projects due, or changes in expectations led to anger, outbursts, self-isolation, aggression, and apathy among her children. “I decided to share a limited amount of what we are dealing with at home with the teachers and school counselor. I let them know that their Daddy is combat injured and has periods of withdrawal, sensitivity, and unavailability. By keeping a rapport with the school staff, they know I am accessible and supportive. This has created a team of support for me and my children. The teachers have a better understanding of what may be contributing to the behavior at school and they share observations and personal insights with me.”

Posted on BrainLine May 27, 2014.

Used with permission from Brain Injury Journey magazine, issue #6, Lash & Associates Publishing/Training, Inc.

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Brain Injury Journey is a 32-page, 8 1/2 x 11, full-color magazine that addresses a wide range of topics for military and civilian people with traumatic brain injury and their families and caregivers. Published four times a year starting in April 2013, the magazine is free online or available by printed subscription.

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