The Difficulties of Parenting with PTSD/TBI or How to Train Your Dragon

Russ in armor riding an inflatable dragon
Russ in armor riding an inflatable dragon

Parenting isn’t easy. That’s not news to anyone with kids. Parenting with the added stressors and triggers of living with brain injury and/or PTSD is a touch more difficult. There are good days and bad days, then there are really bad days.

Sometimes it feels like I am a single parent. That breaks my heart to say because my husband, Russ, really is a fantastic parent as long as he’s not triggered or having a chronic pain flare-up. When he is doing art, building Legos, showing our girls how to ride bikes — or doing anything fun — he gives 110%+. When it’s time to clean up their room, oversee bath time, or deal with finicky eaters at the dinner table … it’s a completely different story.

Children are loud, messy, and really don’t know how to do anything without instruction. What gives? I’m kidding, of course. But kids will be kids. They are curious. They love to explore. They test boundaries and they can also be downright mean, sometimes. They are smart and silly and when a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old are scream-singing at the top of their lungs or have the “zoomies,” it can just be too much for Russ — and even for me sometimes, if I am being totally honest. I can recognize that the girls are just being girls, but Russ can’t always handle the noise or what his body perceives as stress. And then he can start to roar like a fiery dragon. He’ll yell or bark orders for them to stop when all they are really doing is playing. This is not ideal when trying to raise two kind kiddos. Unfortunately, our 6-year old has already taken up daddy’s habit of roaring when she gets mad. We are trying to teach her that roaring is fine, but it must be done into a pillow. You can feel your feelings, whatever they are, but behaviors have consequences. Just like when daddy gets upset, he needs to step away, roar into a pillow, or calm himself in his own ways.

When the girls were little, Russ was AMAZING. He was on top of the schedules with all the cleaning and feeding and administering of teeny baby tub baths. He’d coo and baby talk and generally be a super-dad even when baby was wailing for mom’s milk. As soon as they started to walk and talk, well, that’s when things started getting… loud.

And when it gets loud, Russ’s scales and claws come out. I know he doesn’t mean it. He can go from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye, and I try to do everything I can to keep it from escalating. I try to make sure the girls know that they are being too loud or too excited and it’s too much. But I can’t always catch it or control it. I try to show them how daddy can feel when his senses are overloaded by turning on the television and the music and talking all at once. I try to teach them that sensory overload can feel like too much for your brain to make sense of all at once, which is what it’s like for daddy sometimes. Those moments have helped but these lessons are ongoing.

Both from working for BrainLine and being a part of my own circle of caregiver friends, I understand deeply that we ALL feel like we are alone sometimes. We share tips and tricks but there’s always an underlying sense of guilt and burden to do it alone. I’ve been asking the VA for parenting classes since Russ first started getting treatment nearly seven years ago. We actually received some treatments with baby-in-tow during our couples therapy sessions because we had no available childcare. Our provider was understanding and kind but as our daughter started getting older and was able to understand language, she could no longer join us. Then the pandemic hit and we shifted to virtual sessions during nap time so all was again well. 

But as the girls grew and parenting started to get the better of us, I finally had enough. I started talking to the VA again, at every opportunity. You may remember I was finally officially recognized as a veteran caregiver in January. Since then, I have had nearly weekly calls or check-ins and every time I ask for parenting resources for someone like Russ with PTSD and/or brain injury. Every time I am offered website links and articles which I had already found when what I really wanted was support. Next month our local VA is starting a series on parenting with invisible injuries! I am so excited to finally see the VA taking caregivers and family members into account when caring for veterans. There is still much more to be done, but this is a small step in the right direction. Suffice it to say, I want nothing but the best for my sweet and funny little humans and their soon-to-be-tame dragon.