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“How Veterans can talk with kids about PTSD”
On Monday, Dec. 7, Dr. Wes Sanders, pediatric psychologist for Home Base; Armando Hernandez, program director for Home Base Southwest Florida; and Dr. Paul Simeone, vice president and medical director of behavioral health at Lee Health discussed how Veterans can speak with children about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Below are some key takeaways and resources from the segment.

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Key Takeaways

1. Reach out for help: The first step is to seek professionals for guidance. The VA program “Coaching into Care” is a great resource for families to receive information from professionals who understand military culture and the impact of PTSD on the family and can also provide assistance in connecting the veteran with mental health treatment. This is especially important, as family members are often the number one reason veterans are able to overcome the stigma of mental illness and begin to seek treatment. Additionally, many family members are aware of the Veterans Crisis Line as a critical resource for veterans who may be experiencing extreme distress or thoughts of suicide, an epidemic that takes the lives of roughly 17 veterans per day. But did you know that this resource can be utilized by family members too? If a family member is worried about their veteran and looking for support, they should keep this information handy as well. In fact, while we know that PTSD may increase risk for suicide, we also know that veterans receiving care for their mental health needs are far less likely to die by suicide than their peers who do not.

2. Try to have family conversations about PTSD: Regardless of whether a veteran has accessed care, the topic of PTSD can be incredibly uncomfortable to discuss. Denial, shame, and beliefs reinforced during military service that “emotions are weakness” are difficult to overcome, leaving the impact of PTSD on the family unaddressed. And why talk about this anyway, you may ask? After all, won’t that simply cause the family more distress? Not at all. In fact, leaving these things unspoken can be the most damaging choice of all. Children are perceptive and often look for answers regardless of whether their parents provide them. This means that Google or friends at school will be telling them what to think, robbing veterans of their story and potentially repeating false rumors or information (we call this “scuttlebutt” in the military). Even young children can benefit from some explanation of what mom or dad is going through, as long as it’s appropriate for their age level. Talking about PTSD helps children understand that it’s not their fault, that it’s OK to talk about your problems, and that asking for help is not something to feel ashamed of. Below are a few important considerations about this important and intimidating topic of conversation:

3. One step at a time. Don’t put the burden on yourself to discuss everything in one big, heavy conversation. Share with your child a little bit at a time, making sure to modify what you share based on what’s developmentally appropriate. You do NOT need to share details of your traumatic experience to be effective. Simply letting your child know that you had a scary or bad experience while you were overseas (and how this is affecting you) can be enough. As kids get older and more mature, you can begin to share more information as you feel comfortable.

4. Use resources. Books like “Why is Dad/Mom so mad?” (there are books for each parent) and Sesame Street for Military Families are great resources to help you approach the conversation.

5. Modeling behavior. Remember, children are paying attention to what’s going on in the home. Explaining the challenges you are going through because of PTSD (e.g., “Sometimes I stay home when you go out with mom/dad,” or “Sometimes I get angry and it’s not your fault.”) helps model open communication, as well as the importance of seeking professional help. Kids internalize these lessons and can learn that it’s important and OK to communicate with their parents when they are struggling.

6.It’s not their fault. In the absence of a conversation, children may sometimes blame themselves when their parents are sad, angry, or arguing in the household. Talking about PTSD is an important opportunity to explain to children it’s not their fault. This can also be an opportunity to make sure your children don’t take on a caretaking role. Remind them that there are professionals and doctors helping you to work through this.

7. Common reactions. Sometimes children may become sad or tearful or may not react at all. It’s important to validate any emotional response from your child and give them an opportunity to share their feelings. Children may need a break or wish to end the conversation. That’s OK! Give them some breathing room and check back in later about how they’re feeling.

8. You don’t have to have all the answers. Your child may have some specific questions that you can’t answer, or perhaps are not comfortable answering. You can let them know that you don’t have the answer right now, or that it’s difficult to talk about and you can’t answer a particular question. What’s important is that the dialogue is open, and children feel comfortable and supported in talking with you about this difficult subject.

 

RESOURCES

 

QUESTIONS FROM VIEWERS

Q: How old should your children be to start the conversation about PTSD?
A: Dr. Sanders: I would say at the age where verbal conversation is feasible. But even for young kids 4 or 5 years old, you can have the most rudimentary explanation. “Sometimes mom or dad get angry, but it’s not your fault.” “Sometimes Dad has really big feelings because he experienced something really scary.” That kind of language is simplistic enough that kids understand it. You don’t have to go into more detail than that for young kids. As kids get older, you may be able to expand on it.
Armando: It depends on the age of the children. The conversation might be different if the kids were alive during the time of service. I was out of the service for more than a decade before my kids were born.
Dr. Sanders: Part of what is imbedded in talking to a child who wasn’t there when you were in service is explaining what service means.

Q: Are there any local resources for Veterans about PTSD and mental health awareness?
Armando: I am the local representative for Home Base. Home Base itself has partnered with Lee Health Behavioral Health to provide outpatient mental health services for veterans and their adult family members. We are working towards providing pediatric services. Additionally, there are the VA and local Vet centers. Regardless of where you live in Florida, you have a county veterans’ services officer, who is employed by the county to be a representative to the veteran population. Those veteran service officers are very tied in with everything that is going on in the community, from the VA to the other organizations working to serve veteran issues. Home Base can also help you get connected with services.

 

About Kids’ Minds Matter

The goal of Kids’ Minds Matter is to raise awareness about the need for pediatric mental and behavioral health care services and to raise the funds required to make these services available in the region through Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and Lee Health. An estimated 46,000 Southwest Florida children are impacted by mental and behavioral health disorders like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, psychosis, substance abuse, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As part of the region’s strategic solution to the children’s mental and behavioral health epidemic in Southwest Florida, Kids’ Minds Matter is dedicated to fostering partnerships that support existing services, identifying and filling gaps in the continuum of care, and innovating new treatments.

Philanthropic support for Kids’ Minds Matter has allowed Lee Health and Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida to: implement a tiered model of care that clinically aligns community, inpatient and outpatient care; hire additional psychiatrists, child advocates and other mental health professionals; offer Mental Health First Aid training to local pediatricians, emergency service providers and others who work directly with children; renovate an outpatient center in Fort Myers where a child’s needs can be addressed in a therapeutic setting; and launch a first-of-its-kind Pediatric Digital Cognitive Behavioral Health diagnostic and treatment protocols interlaced with Tele-Psychology support to treat anxiety, depression and trauma. Most recently, Kids’ Minds Matter introduced mental health care navigators into Lee and Collier County schools who will help families find resources and care to address their child’s mental healthcare needs.

The “Mental Health Mondays” segments are a public forum, designed for open discussions that benefit a large audience, and to provide real-time resources and advice from pediatric mental health professionals and advocates. The information shared on this platform is intended for general public consumption and not intended for individual treatment. The views, advice, and resources shared by each guest speaker are solely their own and are not endorsed by Lee Health, Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and Kids’ Minds Matter. Kids’ Minds Matter is dedicated to raising awareness and essential funding to enhance pediatric mental & behavioral health programs, services and access to care in Southwest Florida. To learn more about Kids’ Minds Matter, visit KidsMindsMatter.com.

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