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Children of Veterans Experience Trauma Secondhand, Advocates Say

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Wednesday's shooting at Fort Hood has once again shined a spotlight on the mental health of veterans returning from combat.

The suspected gunman had a self-reported traumatic brain injury after he returned from a tour in Iraq in 2011, the New York Times reported, and military officials were in the process of evaluating him for post-traumatic stress disorder before he killed three people and wounded 16 others before turning the gun on himself. The mental-health issues of veterans are often swept under the rug due to lack of funding, a lack of public understanding, and a backlog of veterans' benefits claims waiting to be processed, advocates say. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 11-20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTSD. 

And many of the children of those veterans will likely suffer, too, military family groups say. Secondary traumatic stress, while not included in official diagnostic manuals, is common for children and spouses of military veterans, they say. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines secondary traumatic stress as "the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Accordingly, individuals affected by secondary stress may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure. They may also experience changes in memory and perception; alterations in their sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence."

And this isn't a new problem. Studies of Vietnam vets with PTSD have found increased incidence of social-emotional problems in their children.

Mother Jones explored concerns surrounding secondhand trauma in military families in an extensive article last year. The story follows the wife and kindergarten-aged daughter of a vet who are both displaying signs of his trauma. In one section, the mother, Brannan, picks her daughter Katie up from school and hears reports of her spitting on classmates because she can't control her anger.

"Brannan's not surprised she's picked up overreacting and yelling--you don't have to be at the Vines residence for too long to hear [the father] hollering from his room, where he sometimes hides for 18, 20 hours at a time, and certainly not if you're there during his nightmares, which Katie is. 'She mirrors...she just mirrors' her dad's behavior, Brannan says. She can't get Katie to stop picking at the sores on her legs, sores she digs into her own skin with anxious little fingers. She is not, according to Brannan, 'a normal, carefree six-year-old.'"

What does this mean for educators? Like children who experience trauma through abuse, it's difficult to imagine that children who are carrying stress as a result of their parents' experiences will have a typical response to discipline, classroom activities, and encouragement. Advocates for trauma-sensitive schools and discipline plans say educators should take a child's background and experience into account when they are administering discipline or correction. They should also work to build connections between the school environment and students, who may isolate themselves to cope, and they should be aware of situations that may make traumatized students feel unsafe.

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