Can Combat PTSD Get Transmitted to Children From Their Parents?

March 5, 2014 Harry Croft, M.D.

It is understood that combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects the warrior, but combat PTSD doesn’t just affect the person suffering it, it also affects those around him (or her) and the effects of combat PTSD on children are just recently being recognized. When the person suffering combat PTSD is a parent, he can turn his home into a combat zone.

Secondary PTSD in Children of Parents with Combat PTSD

If a parents has combat PTSD can he/she transmit the combat PTSD to his/her children? Surprisingly, the answer is yes; here's how combat PTSD is transmitted.The suffering of children can be thought of as secondary combat PTSD – secondary in that it is one step away from the mortar rounds that may have traumatized the actual individual; however, even though the route of the trauma may be secondary, its symptoms and effects may be the same as the primary sufferer. In other words, children can develop the same PTSD symptoms from experiencing a war zone at home. The transmission of combat PTSD from parent to child is also known as intergenerational transmission of trauma. This intergenerational transmission of trauma has been seen in families of soldiers, in those of Holocaust survivors, and others.

How is Combat PTSD Transmitted to Children?

There are many ways that a parent with combat PTSD can transmit their symptoms onto children by increasing their anxiety. The child then deals with that anxiety by acting out the same PTSD symptoms seen in the parent. For example:

  • Sometimes the parent suffering from combat PTSD discusses too many of the specifics of the trauma. This, in turn, causes the child to experience severe anxiety surrounding the events and images and, indeed, they can manifest their own PTSD symptoms.
  • Sometimes the parent refuses to allow the child to talk about uncomfortable or traumatic thoughts, feelings, or events and this tends to increase the anxiety that a child feels. The child may worry that they will cause the PTSD symptoms if they talk about traumatic events.
  • A child may share the PTSD symptoms seen in a parent as a way of trying to connect with him or may mimic the behavior the child sees modeled in the adult.
  • When the parent views the world as dangerous and unsafe, which is typical in combat PTSD, the child picks up on that and tends to see the world in the same way. This tends to create the symptoms of PTSD in the child.

It’s important to remember that this transmission of combat PTSD to children is not the trauma-survivor’s fault; it is simply something that needs to be addressed in combat PTSD treatment. No child should have to suffer at the hands of PTSD and once survivors are made aware of this possibility, they can change their behaviors such that the children are less affected.

In the next article I will discuss how the specific symptoms of combat PTSD can affect the child and the behavioral effects of combat PTSD on children in general.

Dr. Croft is the co-author of a heralded book on combat-related PTSD called I Always Sit with my Back to the Wall. Find Dr. Croft on Facebook, on Twitter, on Google+ and on his homepage.

APA Reference
Croft, H. (2014, March 5). Can Combat PTSD Get Transmitted to Children From Their Parents?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 24 from

Author: Harry Croft, M.D.

Dr. Harry Croft is a keynote speaker, consultant, and media guest and contributor specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He currently acts as a trainer and consultant to businesses with regard to veterans, PTSD, and employment-related issues.

Find Dr. Croft's book, I Always Sit with My Back to the Wall, here, and find out more about him on his website.

November, 2 2018 at 7:43 pm

Wow I'm 51 work side by side with my father for 25 years I took him to the VA to get help 20 years ago ... I have all these symptoms I been trying to get help hard to explain how to tell a Dr wont go into details but this helps

June, 8 2014 at 9:20 pm

Hi From Australia :)
My mother (who was Maltese) was very traumatized in the war, I believe as when she had us 5 kids she developed manic depression. I was very close to her also.
When my husband died nearly 13 years ago now (quiet tragically) I believe I may suffer from PTSD as since that time I havnt been able to move on with my life. I feel down a lot and very much feel a sense of disconnection from life and people. I function in life fairly well but there is always a underlying sense of emptyness or loss or lonliness etc. It seems life a energy force that is somewhat just part of me and quite unmovable. I think I have done everything for myself that is know to man. I am very much into Eckhart Tolles work and think that his work has helped me immensley. But Im wondering if I have PTSD triggered by the loss of my husband but also maybe inherited from my mother. I am so desperate to get out of this stuckness and depressed and suppressed energy inside of me that i continually buy books and programs etc etc. It seems endless though and sometimes i think that the chasing of therapies maybe perpetuates the sense of not good enough and lack. I just so want to live life to the fullest. Have also tried some councellors and just havnt come across anyone who is good in Adelaide. A question I have for you is what validity (if any) is there to all these programs that seemed to have surfaced lately about rewiring the brain. John Arasaf and Mark Waldman both sell these types of program that promise to rewire the brain to success and happiness. Just wondering if this is good marketing or if there is such practices to rewire the brain?
thank you for your time

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 10 2014 at 2:18 pm

Dear Sue,
I cannot diagnose you since I have not seen you, but from what you describe in your note, it would seem you suffer from a depression and not PTSD. The important thing is not what we call it, but what you need to do about it.
I would suggest that you see a good psychiatrist in your area for an appropriate diagnosis. Then the decision for treatment (psychotherapy or medication) can be made more appropriately.
With regards to "rewiring" techniques, it is my understanding that we are some time off before we can treat people with this technique and need more time for evaluation of its effectiveness. However, the choice to "give it a try" has to be yours.
Sorry I could not be of more help.
Harry Croft, MD
Medical Director,

April, 30 2014 at 12:24 am

Thank you very much for sharing with us about the intergenerational transmission of trauma as I was not aware of it. I think this is widening our knowledge on dealing with family members with PTSD that we also need to investigate other members of their family if they have secondary PTSD.
Personally I am person who is much interested and deal with PTSD patients sometimes in my profession.
I am interested in your articles.
Best regards

Mike Ehrmantrout
April, 20 2014 at 11:18 am

This is a fascinating idea. My kids were 5 and 6 when I left for combat. We had a good relationship before I left. But when I came home all hell broke loose in my mental health and honestly, their entire growing up years they had to deal with "PTSD dad," which wasn't always very pleasant. It's funny, I've often wondered if this was the case, that they could possibly have PTSD also, and their mother as well. They have suffered emotionally. They're grown now with their own families. My fervent hope is that the American people will truly understand the deep consequences of war upon not only the troops but even their children as well. I believe the more understanding we have, we will be more reticent to go to war in the first place. Thanks for bringing this out into the open.

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