The Impact of “Invisible War Wounds” on Children

The Impact of Veterans “Invisible Wounds” on their Children

Hundreds of thousands of troops have returned home after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan with brain injuries and/or PTSD. Local and federal leaders, community and religious organizations and non-profits strive mightily to offer support services and programs to help veterans and their families cope and heal. Military One Source, an online one-stop resource center for military and veteran families, lists numerous resources for children and teens. But even more understanding and help is needed.

A psychoanalytic perspective can help provide a deeper understanding of the immediate and long-term psychological effects on children of wounded parents.

In her April 14, 2015 Washington Post article When veterans return, their children also deal with the invisible wounds of war, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux reports on the painful effects a parent’s war injuries can have on children. She profiles children who must avoid seemingly mundane childhood activities like playing hide-and-seek, yelling “boo!” or having sleepovers out of fear of triggering symptoms in their “wounded” parent who suffers from PTSD or a traumatic brain injury. The children of brain injured combat vets are often anxious, isolated, and hypervigilent. Some are considered to have secondary PTSD. There may also be a necessary reversal of roles, where the child is acting in some ways as parent to his/her parent(s). For example, ten and eleven-year-old children featured in the Wax-Thibodeaux describe how they now have to serve as their parent’s “back up memory”. In psychoanalysis, this is often referred to as a "parentified" child and it can have complex lasting psychological effects.

“In households nationwide, hundreds of thousands of wounded parents have come home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their children are struggling to navigate the invisible wounds—traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder, which together afflict an estimated 30 percent of the 2.7 million former troops. The everyday toll on children is unprecedented, advocates for veterans’ families say, because their parents have complex injuries that would have ended their lives in wars past, before recent medical advances, and suffer from psychic scars of multiple deployments.”

Wax Thibodeaux, Washington Post, 4/16/15 

The article is a must read and should be shared.

This article focuses on the impact of “invisible wounds” on real children. Of course the physical wounds of parents can also affect their children’s sense of identity, safety and internal organization and regulation. Parents of injured veterans, neighbors and friends of injured vets all have their own psychological struggle in relation to their loved one’s experience and injuries.

The American Psychoanalytic Association’s Service Members and Veterans Initiative was founded to see what unique contribution psychoanalysis might be able to make towards helping service members, veterans and their families following the long and too often invisible wars in the Afghanistan and Iraq. We decided from the outset to focus on two themes—the effects on families and children, and the long-term effects of war trauma.

Wax-Thibodeaux’s article is a wonderful contribution to moving those issues from the theoretical to the immediate, personal and palpable challenges of children named Koen, Gabby, and Christian.

“Have you or anyone close to you served in the military?” APsaA’s SVI continues to work with other organizations to have this question embedded in the clinical history component of every medical or mental health encounter. Many educators know that schools also need to ask this vital question. Children like Koen need to be assured that every adult they encounter asks that question and knows what Koen is facing at home every day.

Psychoanalysts can help by elucidating the inner and lasting impact of the children’s experience.

By Wylie Tene and Prudence Gourguechon