Caring for Someone with Complex PTSD: Taking Care of Your Adult Child and Yourself
Complex PTSD may not be exactly what you expect because the nature of trauma and triggers is different for everyone. Learning more about how C-PTSD works can help you better care for someone with the disorder. With empowered awareness and compassionate assistance, you can care for your adult child with complex PTSD and for yourself at the same time.
A doorknob that reminds someone of the domestic abuse that used to happen behind his parents’ bedroom door long ago may no longer be just a doorknob. It may be in a place completely removed from that original trauma, a safe place, but for someone with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), that doorknob may be defined by the debilitating anxiety that will follow a triggering encounter with it. It’s hard to understand the connections and underlying intense anxiety that play out—for a parent witnessing an adult child going through the darkness. But it’s important that we do our best to understand, to offer enlightened support, and to maintain our own health and independence in the process.
It isn’t easy for those on the outside to understand; in fact, sometimes the trauma sufferer even struggles to understand their trauma. The original causes and the triggers they come up against in the present are complicated and powerful. When you’re caring for someone with complex PTSD, it’s important to be aware of what words and actions are helpful and what may be counterproductive or discouraging for them. With this greater awareness and with a compassionate approach to treatment, your adult child can learn to reshape their relationship to the trauma and the triggers for a healthier, more fulfilling life every day.
What You Need to Know About Complex PTSD
PTSD and complex PTSD are both anxiety disorders that result from experiences of earlier trauma. C-PTSD typically follows a history of trauma more persistent than that which results in PTSD. Both disorders are extremely distressing, but C-PTSD is characterized by more intense symptoms that intrude on everyday life, including extreme and frequent flashbacks to the source of trauma, unpredictable and upsetting emotions, panic and anxiousness about things that might trigger the stored trauma and pain, nightmares and difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, and dissociation.
It’s important to know that every case of C-PTSD is different and that making assumptions about what your child is going through may lead to more distance and unhelpful gestures, even when your intentions are entirely compassionate. Keep in mind that complex PTSD is a very real and overwhelming disorder, and it’s not something an individual can just think or reason or relax away. They need your patience. And it’s possible that when you are patient and willing to listen and support them compassionately, they will be able to develop more patience for themselves and what they are going through.
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Tips for Caring for Someone with Complex PTSD
Unfortunately for those suffering from complex PTSD and for their families, there is not an easy fix for C-PTSD. This disorder that developed after an extended period of trauma will need to benefit an extended period of treatment and compassionate understanding from a solid support system in order to unravel. Your adult child is lucky to have your care and support, but you, too, need support, education, and compassion in order to help lay a foundation for long-term recovery.
Don’t underestimate the danger and intensity of your adult child reliving their original traumatic memories and suffering. Triggers can be as common as hearing someone raise their voice, seeing a news story about an event similar to their trauma, or even just running across everyday objects and other sensory experiences that remind them of their past distress. And their distress in the present can have powerful long-term physical, mental, and spiritual impacts.
When they are in the midst of a flashback or otherwise triggering moment, you can help them to feel grounded in their body and in the physical space of the moment with gentle, calm reminders. It’s usually a good idea to allow them plenty of physical space and not touch them during this time as it can compound the triggers already at work. In general, it’s best to ask them what would be most helpful in times of retraumatization—but do not try to initiate the discussion while the trauma is currently in motion.
Patience means taking a small step back and letting your child indicate when they are ready to talk about and work through their stored trauma. Even with the best intentions, forcing them to revisit horrifying memories can cause retraumatization and set them back on their path to recovery. While it’s important for you to maintain a positive, well-r0unded perspective in this process, it’s equally important that you do not try to impose positivity on your child or the idea that they can simply adjust their thinking about the memories with positivity, deep breathing, or similar methods. These mistaken extensions of support could lead to your adult child feeling more isolated than they already are and perhaps even deepening the wounds of traumatic memory.
Lead with Listening
Educating yourself about C-PTSD causes, symptoms, and treatment is critical for recovery success, but be careful not to make assumptions about what your child is going through. Only they can tell you how they experience their unique trauma—and even that conversation is likely very difficult for them to approach and be present for. Since you don’t want to force them into discussing their trauma, it can help to let them know that you are here and ready to listen should they ever want to talk.
Taking a primarily receptive, listening approach will help you to develop a greater awareness of the whole picture. This is one of the most important forms of support you have to offer: by being observant and by being there for your child when they are ready and need you, you cultivate a safe and empowering space for the recovery journey.
Discuss the Triggers and Work Together
Being intentional and proactive about a recovery plan can help you to avoid retraumatization and to create a safe recovery environment where someone with complex PTSD feels personally supported. At a time when they feel ready and open to talking, ask your child to share with you the triggers they have been encountering of late and what has or has not been helpful for them to feel safe and secure. They may struggle to talk about the triggers as the associations can be immediately painful, and there may be certain things they don’t want to discuss at all. Let them know that it’s okay for them to take their time and share as they become ready.
Consider this a process of building trust within yourselves, between the two of you, and within the everyday environment where recovery is taking place. This conversation about triggers and compassionate support will be an ongoing one as circumstances can change and you’ll want your awareness to constantly expand and evolve with your adult child’s experiences.
Learn About the Options for Treatment
With the right tools and awareness, you can be a remarkable source of support when caring for someone with complex PTSD, but it is still a disorder that calls for professional guidance and treatment. Long-term residential treatment programs are the best option for a recovery path that brings clients back to the life they really want to live. In these settings, experts are trained to establish a nurturing environment and be receptive to clients’ particular needs and triggers so they can ensure the best potentials for recovery success.
In a long-term treatment setting, clients can heal trauma as they are ready. Just as they build trust with you and the home recovery environment, they have sufficient time and space to build trusting relationships with therapist and clinicians who can offer invaluable guidance, support, and tools along the way. The extended time in the treatment setting allows the trauma to unfold gradually and progressively—unlike in short-term settings where surface layers of trauma and triggers may be resolved temporarily, but the roots of past pain remain.
Here, in treatment, clients can also develop skills to help them reintegrate with life after treatment and cultivate more of the experiences they want to leave. They will gain a recovery community where they feel understood and where they can relate to others also striving for empowerment and freedom from trauma. Residential treatment centers also prioritize family involvement because they know how critical the family’s role is in the client’s path of recovery.
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Remember to Also Take Care of You
When you’re caring for someone with complex PTSD, their distress can quickly become your distress if you don’t maintain perspective and boundaries and if you don’t have adequate support yourself. Yes, taking care of yourself ensures that you are in the best position to care for your child, but it’s important to take care of yourself for your own sake. And only in this way do you set an example for your adult child of how to exercise dedicated compassion and self-care.
Safeguard your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. If you are not getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, or doing the things that you used to enjoy doing, it may be time to seek some family or professional support. You can find occasional respite and build a critical and empowering support system for yourself in the process. Meanwhile, as you practice good listening and cultivate greater awareness of your child’s experiences, you can be alert to your own experiences and necessary boundaries. Draw a line at taking personally what your loved one is going through and how they are expressing it. Take responsibility for your own experience and for being a receptive and compassionate advocate.
Hanbleceya offers long-term treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders, co-occurring substance use disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned San Diego-based program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.