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By Roy Smith
When you have children parenting with PTSD can be difficult. In fact at times it can seem impossible. If you cannot reach past the battlefield or the trauma, there is no way you can reach out to your children and be of much assistance. That should never stop you from trying though. I keep trying all the time but it doesn’t make me feel better when I look back knowing I should have done better.
When I was struggling as a parent after I came home from deployments, I would look for ideas and books to help me. Though, I realize now that I didn’t have the ability to truly understand what the books and articles were telling me. I now look at parenting ideas with more of an open mind but let me tell you, I have struggled as a parent over the last 19 years. In all honesty, I have not been a good parent. If you are my children and reading this, I am going to ask that you stop reading right here till your 30 years old and have kids of your own.
My children and I are starting anew with our relationship and with the exception of my oldest daughter things are progressing quite well. Which brings me to my first point to my readers who have the same issues with having not been a good parent due to PTSD. Children are quite forgiving if you give them the chance. Just don’t start the same behavior, whatever it may be, which will remind them of the past. I was quite surprised when my wife (a new wife, not the girl’s mother) suggested that I apologize to them. She, a future Trauma psychologist, simply told me that children inherently don’t want to be mad at their parents and will take an apology so they don’t feel angry.
This worked for me but it comes with a strong warning. For you to truly reset your relationship with your children, what ever behavior you did which made you a bad parent in the past, you absolutely cannot repeat. As my college child and family development class told me, children are willing to forgive you once rather easily but it is a thousand times harder to be forgiven a second time for the same thing.
The most difficult part of trying to be a parent when struggling with PTSD is that you cannot be there for your children when you are not there for yourself. I know it sounds all psychological but it is the truth and it has been my hardest battle. I had to be ready to accept that even though I had tried with everything in me to be there for my kids the fact was I hadn’t been. I had not given them what they needed and I did not honestly know what was missing.
Looking back on my parenting struggles I was startled to find that Jordan (my current wife) had very little compassion for me. Usually where she would step in and stop me from delving into self loathing for my short comings she was right there to agree with me. What she did do though was attack the problem at the heart of the matter and she was careful to not seem like she was attacking me.
She asked me one day “Now that you are retired what do you want to teach your children? What do you want them to know about life if you die?” Those were a good questions which got me to truly begin examining my career, not as a soldier for which I was extremely proud, but as a father for which I was not nearly as proud. They grew up watching me go to war and then come back home. They tried to show me how much they loved me, they even tried to help me when I came back home. One of my biggest regrets is that when I was deployed, I would constantly remind myself that I was doing this in part to keep my children safe and I longed to be back in America with them. But once I got back, my sever PTSD would not allow me to be there for or with them. It remains one of my biggest regrets to this day.
And Jordan was right, children are resilient. When I sat my children down to apologize I expected resistance and rejection. However, thankfully they did listen. It was one of the most difficult conversations I ever had with anyone but it was worth it in the end. They took the opportunity to express just how angry they where for how I had ruined their lives, ruined family vacations with drinking (flashbacks), how they were angry that they grew up only seeing their parents fighting, and much more. It at times seemed like my life as a father was on trial and I was being sentenced to purgatory for life. However, to my great surprise once they got it all out and I apologized once again for the specific things they had mentioned, it seemed to me and the girls agreed, that this great weight had been lifted. We were free to start over.
I have changed a lot over the past two years because I took the steps to take away those things which reminded my children of the past. I took steps like reducing my drinking when they visited. I then took it further to the point of where I didn’t drink at all when they were staying with me. I took steps to be honest and stop shielding them from the truth in an effort to try and protect them. I was honest about the divorce with their mother. I was honest about the love and happiness I had found with my new wife Jordan.
The truth was that my children had crappy childhoods and my
behavior was one of the reasons why and now I am on the road to fix it. I have hope based on how my relationship is currently progressing with my children. My wife shores me up from time to time by pointing out that children are resilient.
I learned that in order to be a good parent you really do have to be honest. And as much as you want to protect your child from the truth until they are older I must agree with Jordan on this point that is not the best way to teach them to deal with life and handle their problems. After spending some time with them I realized I had never had that much honesty in any private relationship. I had tried everything I could to protect my children from what I had seen and what I had done. What I did not know is by protecting them I was exposing them. I was making it worse because I was not setting the example of how to work through bad experiences.
Now when I interact with my children I do it honestly. A prime example was when they asked me about the divorce. I didn’t try to sit there and tell them but instead I got them the paperwork and let them read what was happening and, most importantly, let them draw their own conclusions.
Sometimes they ran across stuff that there mom had lied about and instead of getting angry and yelling about how stupid she is I just corrected the mistake I showed them the facts and I backed away. I let them draw their own conclusions.
That is the second major lesson I wish to share with my readers. I have learned that you have to pick and choose when and why you’re going to influence your children. In reality we do not always get to choose how we influence our children that is their choice and only they can make it. When children are younger you can convince them of almost anything but as they get older and mature that ability goes away. Therefore, instead of fighting my teenagers I am learning to embrace their willingness to think and draw conclusions on their own. That can be very hard sometimes because you don’t always come out looking the best in their eyes. However, in the end, most things they will get mad about will not have a long lasting effect on how they think about you but the effort to allow them to make their own conclusions and then talk about how they are dealing with it does have a long lasting effect. They will look to you for advice and they will trust you. Despite most of the parenting books I have read over the years, one of the most important aspect to raising children is all too often overlooked. You have to let your children make mistakes. It is how they will learn the most about life and it is better for them to make mistakes while you still have them with you then after they are grown up and moved out into the world. In the end, it is probably less expensive too.
The last point I wish to leave my readers with is not to fall into the trap I have over and over again during this process. As my girls watch me heal and become a better person I have become hasher on myself and my mistakes. My children did forgive me for ruining dinners and vacations. How I will never truly understand but they have and somehow they still love me. What you have to do though in order to be able to engage your children is forgive yourself. How can I hug my daughter and show her I love her if I am constantly feeling like an ass for the way that I have treated her in the past. How can I be happy in a moment that my mind and heart is not living in? I couldn’t. I had to learn that I had to let go of the guilt and disappointment. That was easier said then done, let me tell you. As my wife points out to me, my self loathing gets in the way of enjoying the now.
More to Come
There is so much more to parenting then what I have included in this article, especially for those who suffer from PTSD. My intent was to simply convey my mistakes in the hopes others could learn from them. As I said, there is far more I have to convey concerning parenting with PTSD so my intent is to write several articles illustrating the lessons I have learned. Some will be humorous, most will be tragic but all hopefully will be informative. These articles are more about my own journey as a person and a father then anything else. Hopefully, I have the writing skills to provide you a true and deep look into that journey so that we all can learn from my past.