Unrecognized PTSD in Parents

It’s true. I see it often. Parents come in to my office to set up testing for their child. I ask them about the developmental history. We discuss the birth and then I see it. Eyes go wide open. Rapid blinking. Tears well up. Faces go pale. Throat constricts. Bodies go rigid.  This is not an emotional response to describing the meaningful event in their life. This is post traumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD. 

Giving birth to a child is preceded by great anticipation and excitement but when something goes wrong, be it by prematurity, labor issues, birth trauma, or a newborn ending up in the NICU for a myriad of reasons, parents often go into a traumatic paralysis. Outwardly they may function as highly competent but later, after the crisis, a pattern of over-reactivity, middle of the night panic, flashbacks and seemingly out of the blue crying spells can persist. This is not postpartum depression, as it can last for years. It has been largely unrecognized that parents of babies who fight for the lives endure the type of stress that turns into PTSD. 


1. Seek help. There are therapists who specialize in PTSD. While there are few who specialize in PTSD parents of children because this syndrome has been largely unrecognized, a clinician with training in PTSD who is flexible can adapt. There are mind-body clinicians in sensorimotor psychotherapy which can be helpful. 

2. Advocate for yourself. Do not allow yourself to be patronized or placed in a generic category of female with depression. Explain the issue. Learn more. You will need to educate the therapist. 

3. Use your community for support and resources. Find a group who have similar children (there are groups for everything). Hearing about others’ experienced will help quell the middle of night panic or the over-reactivity of your body based emotional responses. 

4. Self care: you may not remember this but when your baby was in crisis (or continues to be in crisis), you may not have taken adequate care of yourself. While you can’t go back in time, you can do it now. Massage, acupuncture, long walks outside or an active sport, or involvement in a passion that you love boost oxytocin and endorphins, which will aid in being super defense against those negative moments. 

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