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“When the House Grows Quiet, We Fall Apart”

When they stumble, we pick them up. When they’re lonely, we hug vigorously. When they ache, we make the pain go away. But it’s never enough, and the ADHD PTSD catches up to us eventually.

Do you feel guilty because your child’s behavior makes you depressed?

When a fellow member of my ADHD parent support group asked this question recently, I was not offended or appalled. It was a bitter pill to swallow, yes. But the question, I felt, was a fair and accurate one for parents like myself.

What was my reply? Without a moment’s hesitation, I said “It feels more like PTSD than depression to me.”

I was not being flippant; I was being real. For parents who are shocked by the idea that a child might trigger a serious mental health condition in his or her own parents, please take a moment to step back and really listen.

When Parenting is Traumatic

Please know that I don’t reference post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) lightly. The parents who get this bold statement know what it feels like to anguish over the episodes and behavior that cause you to walk on eggshells, take a deep breath, or just break down and cry. They know they can survive the stressful moment itself, but the real pain comes afterward. The trauma emerges later when you slip up and yell or break down for no apparent reason.

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The reason, it turns out, is buried deep beneath the surface, stored in the memories of earlier moments when we saw our kids struggling with things out of their control, and we had to be strong for them. In the heat of the moment, we will ourselves to remain stoic and strong for them. Or worse, when we lost our temper and yell at our warriors for something we know is beyond their control. Afterward, our hearts break, and we feel every ounce of that pain.

It all catches up with us when the house is finally silent. When we are worn out and over tired. When we are physically and mentally exhausted. When all we want to do is sleep, but instead our minds grab all the stress and anxiety that we placed on the shelf in the moment.

This is when you feel the weight of the burdens that you bear for your child, whom you love with every fiber of your being. You begin to second guess your every step, every word, every time you lost your temper. You anguish over the shame of not being collected every minute when your child needs you at your best. This is when you realize you can never give enough; your child will always need more.

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The PTSD I’m describing is not terrifying or scary in a way I imagine soldiers or police officers experience PTSD. But it is traumatic and sometimes even crippling to watch your child struggle, particularly when they do so every day.

All we want is to make life easier, better, happier for our kids — and we can’t. So when it is safe and your kids and spouse are sound asleep, you fall apart. You lay awake with your mind being taken over by self-doubt and debilitating regret.

I am not an expert, but that sounds — and feels — like PTSD to me.

[Click to Read: How to Recharge After Your Child Has a Tantrum]

6 Comments & Reviews

  1. Ironically I used the term PTSD this past week to describe my son’s sudden change in behavior and attitude. My daughter has had nightmarish evening, daytime, anytime tantrums/meltdowns almost daily for the past 3 years. My son who is younger at 10yrs old has been a trooper. During the many evenings where I am preoccupied trying to soothe his sister, he would often quietly go into his room, turn on his noise machine and go to sleep. Whenever I would check in with him he would say things like “Its okay Mom go help her”. A few months ago we started a new medication that has served to turn the volume down on big sisters meltdowns. Just when we thought we were seeing daylight my son’s disposition has totally shifted. He is mad, he is angry, he is defiant…now he is throwing the tantrums. I agree 1000% that the trauma he suffers is by no means on the scale of what those who serve have to deal with but I think the reaction of keeping it together during the heat of the battle only to release afterwards is the common theme.

  2. “The PTSD I’m describing is not terrifying or scary in a way I imagine soldiers or police officers experience PTSD”

    That seems like a pretty good indication to me that the writer’s experience is then not PTSD – because PTSD is terrifying and scary for those experiencing it. If the writer didn’t know this, or thought it was ok to use the label PTSD regardless of it not fitting the criteria, shouldn’t the editors have picked up on this?

    Here’s a link to the actual, DSM V description and criteria for PTSD – and until that definition is changed then it’s the one we have to work if we want to be accurate, however inconvenient that may be.

    I am weary of seeing this very serious diagnosis used in ways that don’t fit with the definition. The DSM V has a very specific criteria for what are considered causes of PTSD (to begin with, it involves being threatened with, experiencing or witnessing violent death, injury, or rape) and specific symptoms that must be present in order for it to be PTSD. Regardless, PTSD is turning up as a description of anything and everything that is emotionally challenging and overwhelming and even some clinicians seem to have decided it’s ok to ignore the criteria.

    I say this as a single ADHD mom of two (now adult) sons with ADHD – so it’s not that I don’t understand the struggle, the anxiety, the overwhelm, the fears and the other host of emotions that come with ADHD parenting package. I could understand how in some cases a stress related diagosis might even make sense. But one of my two ADHD sons is also a member of the military and does meet the criteria for PTSD and I can tell you that even the very difficult and painful experiences I’ve had on my parenting journey (and there have been some doozies) are nothing compared to what he goes through.

    When someone describes what they are experiencing as PTSD with no grounding in evidence, it minimizes what those who do meet the criteria are going through. Contrary to the current societal belief that “it is true just because I say it is true despite all actual evidence to the contrary”, there do exist some standard definitions of certain things for good reason.

  3. Although the author may be well-intentioned, the casual use of the term PTSD in this article is profoundly troubling. I happen to have PTSD (complex), and I am also a single mom of an ADHD kiddo who has other stuff going on too (Learning disability and a diagnosed attachment disorder).

    I appreciate how hard parenting high-needs kiddos can be, and I do understand the exhaustion/emotional complexity that may occur in quiet moments. That said, the diagnosis and experience of PTSD is very, very different.

    Using a short-cut like this to describe the difficulties of parenting when ADHD is present is careless, and when the term PTSD is misapplied like this it creates and maintains misunderstandings about the disorder. Misinformation also makes it harder for those of us who are working to heal. The writer is not a mental health professional and this use of the term is inappropriate and unprofessional–(btw, we also need to remember that trauma does not always lead to PTSD). The editors should have caught this.

  4. Caregiver PTSD is a real thing and there are studies to support it. PTSD is not something that comes only from combat experiences or from terrifying, life threatening situations. PTSD can be the result of any traumatic event, be that shocking, scary, or dangerous. It occurs when our “flight or fight” response no longer works properly. Every person handles trauma differently and to say to someone, your trauma isn’t bad enough or doesn’t count, shows a complete lack of understanding of mental health.
    I personally spent a year picking my son up from school knowing something happened and I would get talked to every day. I knew that every day could be the day they kicked him out. That threat was present every day for a year. He is doing so much better know and I don’t have that daily threat, but every phone call from the school, every message from the teach, every note home sends me into panic mode. Before I answer the phone or read the message I start to sweat, I immediately get angry and defensive, I physically deflate knowing my son has again done something that may get him kicked out. After I find out he hasn’t done anything wrong, I now have to come back from the overreaction and deal with the feelings of guilt and blame.
    This is PTSD. I have lived with someone with combat related PTSD. I have lived with someone with PTSD caused by abuse as a child. The triggers are different, the severity is different, but the label is the same.

  5. Boy, do I feel this in my bones. I suspect I have ADHD & there’s a strong possibility that my 7-year-old does, too. However, it’s my 9-year-old son’s struggles that have crippled me, at times. He’s intellectually “gifted” (a term I hate) and because he’s been misunderstood for so long, he had full-blown social anxiety disorder by the time he was in first grade. Even though he’s an extrovert and craves social connection.

    Kids didn’t “get” him in kindergarten and, by the end of the school year, he was shunned by almost the entire class. So in first grade, he tried a different tactic: class clown. That made things even worse. No matter how many times I asked him to stop, it didn’t help. (He said, “It’s my thing.”) I now realize that his anxiety level was so high around other kids that he couldn’t stop. He was in full-blown fight/flight/freeze mode. (I didn’t see this happen because, around me, he was MUCH calmer. I was his safety haven, but didn’t realize it.)

    As a result of all this, I have sobbed in my walk-in closet (the quietest place I could think of) more times than I can count. I have been to my own therapist, which ended up being a blessing in disguise because she’s the one who realized he might be the G word. (I had no idea and neither did his teachers, the school counselor, or anyone else.) In addition, I’ve gained nearly 30 lbs.

    Thankfully, things are improving, but it’s still a roller coaster. This past fall, another 4th grader was physically and verbally bullying my child. I saw indicators that his anxiety was getting super high again (e.g., “missing” the bus every morning, no longer playing outside, joking about suicide and going to heaven). However, for two or three weeks, he insisted everything was fine. Thankfully, he finally told us what was going on.

    It’s been emotionally and physically draining for me, too. MY anxiety level gets high now, which has never been an issue for me before. So yes, maybe PTSD is an appropriate term. I sure seems like that could be the case!

    I started blogging last year (Kite Kid Mama) and that has helped me process my emotions and learn from many experts; however, it’s still a very difficult parenting journey. Love and light to ALL parents who experience this type of debilitating heartache. It’s hard to try to be the strong one all the time.

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