PTSD in Special Needs Parents

PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is typically heard in the context of war veterans. You can develop PTSD from any experience that’s painful or upsetting, including caring for a special needs child. How does this happen?

  • Long NICU stays where the child is on the verge of death.
  • Babies so pre-mature they need constant 24/7 care to survive.
  • Hospital admissions for life-threatening infections.
  • Finding out your child has a life-altering and lifespan shortening diagnosis and watching them fight it every day.

There are many more examples. I wanted to name just a few to make my point clear. Almost every special needs parent is at some level of risk for PTSD. They are constantly exposed to situations that are extremely stressful where the results are completely out of their control. All the while, something bad is happening to someone they love more than anyone else in the world (except their other children of course).

If you have PTSD or PTSD symptoms, keep a therapist who has experience working with the condition. They can help you identify triggers and work with you over time to reduce the power your flashbacks have over your life. If you know what situations cause flashbacks and anxiety you’ll be better prepared to handle them. For example, you may end up back in the hospital with your child at some point. Before that happens, you need to be able to walk into an inpatient room without breaking down.

What if you’re concerned about someone else? If you suspect someone you care about has PTSD from their children’s medical problems, recommend the person speak to a professional therapist about their symptoms. There is a lot of overlap between PTSD and other mental health problems which are difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate with an untrained eye. Normally you would go to your general practitioner (GP) first, but their GP may not be able to interpret the concerns properly. Many GPs have limited experience with mental health issues.

Even with therapy, recovery takes time. So many special needs parents are exposed to situations that have the potential to cause PTSD. We, as a community, need to understand that this is not a mental health problem limited to veterans and military personnel. Parents struggling with PTSD need just as much support as anyone else with the symptoms, perhaps more because they may still be in and out of the situation which caused the symptoms in the first place.

Not everyone that’s anxious, sleep deprived, and snaps at people has PTSD. These are, however, problems caused by PTSD symptoms. While I don’t recommend assuming someone has PTSD because they appear to be in a bad mood, it’s never a bad idea to treat people with patience, love, and understanding. This is especially true when you’re a special needs parent as well. You know exactly how hard what they’re going through can be on someone.

Additional information is available in the follow-up PTSD Symptoms and Support Organizations first published on Feb 21, 2017.

5 responses

  1. Pingback: Podcast – PTSD in Special Needs Parents « Struggling to Thrive

  2. As a first time parent to my daughter born 40 years ago, I absolutely agree, but am not sure I would have recognized it back then. During the first year or so of her life, it was “take it minute by minute” and I could only think of her. I look back at nights filled with searching through medical books (what in the world did I think I could do??) and calling the NICU every couple of hours just to make sure she was still alive (obviously sleep deprived each day) …. I’m sure I would meet criteria for several mental health diagnoses. All this was merely the beginning of her lifetime full of medical, therapeutic, medication interventions. What I finally learned before she passed away at the age of 21 is – ONLY my husband and her sisters and I recognized that she was a PERSON who was capable of not just “being cared for” but of loving those around her and knowing she was deeply and totally loved by us. Her life was a tremendous gift to us all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. I’ve taken more time than I normally do to respond because I’m not quite sure what to say. She sounds like a wonderful person whom I would’ve loved to have met. You sound like a tremendous mother who did everything you could to give your daughter the most fulfilling life possible, full of love and joy.

      Thank you so much for sharing your story.


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