Veterans with PTSD struggle to parent, but help is available

The loud, chaotic realities of raising young children can be a huge challenge for military parents with PTSD.
When Jeff Lee returned home after being injured in the Iraq War, he struggled to connect with his family. He credits his wife with helping his family as he grappled with trauma.
When Jeff Lee returned home after being injured in the Iraq War, he struggled to connect with his family. He credits his wife with helping his family as he grappled with trauma.Courtesy of the Lee family / Courtesy of the Lee family

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By Meghan Holohan

When baby Jace started crying, his father, Jeff Lee, struggled. True, the wail of a baby triggers anxious concern in most parents — but this was different. Little Jace’s screams reminded Jeff of the sound of a wounded Marine.

“There was a pitch that Jace would hit that sounded like a person who was hit on the battlefield,” Jeff’s wife, Jolynn Lee, 49, of Hubert, North Carolina, told TODAY Parents. “He couldn’t stand to hear him cry.”

Jeff enlisted in the U.S. Marines immediately after high school and deployed to Iraq during the first Gulf War. He later enrolled in the Marines’ Enlisted to Officer program to further his military career, and he found himself back in Iraq during the Iraq War. In 2004, during the brutal first Battle of Fallujah, Jeff got shot in the shoulder and bicep. He duct-taped himself up so he could continue fighting, and he earned a Purple Heart and Silver Star. But the man who returned home from Iraq was not the same person his family remembered.

“That is where our lives changed,” Jolynn said. “I was familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder and combat trauma. You can’t be part of the military and not at least hear of it. Experiencing it was a whole different ball game.”

Parenting with PTSD

The Lee family learned something that many combat veterans confront. The loud, chaotic realities of parenting young children — screaming, crying, boisterous play, crowded school events and sibling arguments — can feel triggering to military parents with PTSD.

“It is so stimulating,” Leah Blain, director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, told TODAY Parents. “That feeling being jumpy or on guard — you can imagine how that is going to translate with the kiddos. They have so much energy, which is wonderful, but it is a lot to process all the time if your symptoms are working all the time.”

The Pew Research Center estimates that three-quarters of post-9/11 service members have been deployed overseas, and 36% of veterans think they have PTSD even if they haven't reached out for help. The precise number of military parents who have PTSD remains unknown.

“The VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) does not collect data on parenthood,” said Michelle Sherman, a professor in the family medicine and community health department at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. “The VA is not set up in the most effective way to address children and adults with children.”

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD can occur when a person experiences something extremely scary and life-threatening. Symptoms include:

  • Increased anger
  • Depression
  • Negative thoughts
  • Numbness
  • Re-experiencing trauma in a way that feels intrusive

For moms and dads, parenting with PTSD may mean adopting a harsh manner devoid of positive emotions, said Suzannah Creech, a researcher on trauma and families with the VA’s Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans.

“When harsher parenting escalates to (using) really negative behavior, we know that causes risks to children long term,” Creech, a professor in the psychiatry department at University of Texas Dell Medical School, told TODAY Parents.

Jolynn Lee noticed this new, harsher approach when Jeff first came home from the Iraq War. Jolynn and Jeff had three kids at the time — Jace arrived later in 2007 — and they were all thrilled to see their dad. The family went out to breakfast, where it became clear something was wrong.

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“He was so fixated on the kids’ manners and their behavior,” Jolynn recalled. “He couldn’t turn off. I wasn’t aware that hyper-vigilance is part of PTSD.”

Parenting after being wounded in combat was a struggle at times for Jeff Lee, but his wife Jolynn helped the entire family navigate it. She even went back to school to become a counselor so she could better understand what he was experiencing. Courtesy of the Lee family

Looking back, Jeff said it was challenging to transition away from life in a war zone, where everyone understood they had to follow exact directions to stay safe.

“When you come back, you are expecting instant obedience of orders,” Jeff, now 49 and a government contract employee, told TODAY Parents.

Of course, children don't always fall in line with military precision.

“Families require you to have conversation, and it is through conversation there is relationship-building,” Jeff said. “You don’t raise young Marines.”

Jeff remembers the turmoil he felt when his kids woke him up at night: In combat, he'd only wake at night if they were under attack.

“Little children don’t understand that, and they come running when something scares them or when something happens,” he said. “That was a struggle with me.”

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Treatments provide hope

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense recently launched awareness campaigns to destigmatize PTSD and encourage veterans to seek care.

“There is clear documentation showing relationships between parental PTSD and kids with depression, anxiety and behavioral problems,” noted Sherman of the University of Minnesota.

Even when parents think they’re protecting their children by withdrawing, kids often notice that something's wrong.

“Kids don’t know why their parents are passed out drunk on the couch all the time,” Sherman said. “Or they don’t know why their parents aren't coming to their games.”

Hope Griffin, 40, of Brandon, Florida, said her family’s home life changed dramatically since her husband, John Griffin, 46, was injured in IED explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He struggles with PTSD, so the couple’s three children change their behavior around him.

“They try to be quieter when they know he is not having a good day,” Griffin told TODAY Parents. “They’ll excuse themselves and go to a friend’s house. Out in public they try to make sure he has a seat where he can see the whole restaurant.”

She said their kids also instinctively avoid events that might be too crowded or overwhelming. One time their dad had to leave an orchestra concert because of someone’s flash photography.

John Griffin medically retired from the U.S. Army after a decade of service. He and his wife have attended therapy over the years.

“It has been a constant thing to work through,” she said. “We are in a better place in that we are all communicating better.”

After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and getting injured in IED attacks, John Griffin struggled with PTSD and his relationship with his family suffered. With the proper therapy, he's been able to manage his symptoms and become a better dad.Courtesy of the Griffin family

Experts say cognitive behavioral therapy and prolonged exposure therapy can treat PTSD effectively, but both processes feel grueling for many.

“The drop-out rate is high,” Sherman said. “The tricky part is the therapies require the patient confront, talk about and write about their traumatic experience, and avoidance is one of the key components (of PTSD).”

Sherman wrote a guide to help parents discuss PTSD with their children. (That guide can be found here.) Finding a therapist who specializes in PTSD treatment also can be invaluable.

Jeff Lee recently retired after 30 years of military service. He and his wife Jolynn attended therapy, and they run a group program using faith-based approaches to help veterans and their families manage trauma.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Jolynn said. “You are peeling the layers of the onion and you navigate healing in one area and find out there’s another.”

Jeff said Jolynn's strength helped their family heal.

“If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know what would happen,” he said. “If it wasn’t for her, absolutely, we would be totally different people. She helped walk us all through.”

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