PTSD in Parents Caring for Sick Children

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

Recently, in a private discussion group, a friend posed the question whether it was possible to have PTSD from dealing with a child that has had serious medical problems.   While I admittedly do not have a psychology background, I definitely related to the symptoms she described and it made me wonder.   I thought about everything parents dealing with a child that has IBD go through, as well as what we went through with our child.

In my case, I had just had my twins six weeks earlier and the hormones were nuts   One of my twins never slept, was in pain constantly from GERD and had issues with her airway that we later determined was from severe asthma.   Watching your child frequently struggle to breathe or scream in pain while you are helpless to do anything is heart-wrenching, to say the least.

When my daughter was six-weeks old she had an apnea related to her GERD that was later determined to be an ALTE, apparent life-threatening event.   She stopped breathing, turned blue, eyes rolled back in her head and went by ambulance to the hospital.   This was one of the scariest incidents of the many health issues she had dealt with. I was terrified.

I went days without sleeping or eating and would only rest when another adult promised to watch my daughter closely.   When I was finally able to sleep again, nightmares made it far from restful.   As the days turned into months I found myself becoming detached from my daughter.   In hindsight it was a coping mechanism that should the worst happen I would not be destroyed. I was not a fun person to be around.

I have never openly discussed my own feelings about PTSD.     In part because I did not want to diminish in any way what our soldiers deal with when they return from war.   After all, what I had seen was nothing compared to what they went through.   Nothing!   Most of my mommy friends felt the same way, which is likely why the subject was only broached in a private group setting.

When researching for this article I found something that challenged my thinking.   A blog written by HealthCentral blogger John McManamy entitled _Facing Past Trauma: The History of the PTSD Diagnosis. _ It changed my mind.

McManamy wrote:

"Death camp survivors - most notably the Italian writer Primo Levi -   also experienced severe depression. In 1987, Levi fell victim to suicide. According to Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel, "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier."

So, would giving the depression diagnosis to a person who can't get out of bed in the morning or finds herself crying a lot in the company of others diminish the death camp hells that Primo Levi went through? Of course not.

To put it another way: Would we deny treatment to someone who cannot function based on the criteria that they did not endure combat or a death camp - or a civilian experience that equates to one or the other? Of course not.

So why the absurdity in limiting the PTSD diagnosis? Simple, really. Depression and bipolar and other illnesses had their origins in everyday life. PTSD came out of the heat of combat. It is an historical anomaly, but hardly a biological fact".

The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV; APA, 1994) was the first to add that experiencing a life-threatening medical condition or observing it in a family member was an event that could qualify for a PTSD diagnosis. This addition came as PTSD began being applied to more instances, beside those of soldiers returning from war.   Further research has also shown that up to 23 percent of parents who have had children in the NICU or PICU (1) and 30 percent of parents whose children have had leukemia (2) experienced symptoms of PTSD.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of PTSD fall into three categories and can include:

Intrusive Memories

These memories can occur in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, distressing recurring memories, and severe reactions to things that remind you of the event.


Some of the symptoms of avoidance can include trying not to think or talk about the event and staying away from people or places that remind you of the event.

Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood

This can exhibit itself in negative feelings about yourself or others, as well as no interest in things that were previously enjoyable.   You may be unable to have hope for the future or can feel completely numb.   It may become hard to maintain previous relationships.

Changes in Emotional Reactions

Some of the examples of changes that occur in emotional reactions can include aggressive behavior, angry outbursts, self-destructive behavior, feelings of guilt, trouble concentrating and trouble sleeping.

Symptoms like these can be normal after a traumatic event. But when they become severe--you feel like you can't get your life back or they last longer than a month--you need to seek an opinion of a physician.   I don't know if what I dealt with was PTSD or post-partum depression, but if I had sought out some help it may have prevented a lot of pain and suffering.