Vicarious Trauma in Military Families occurs when trauma or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by the service member becomes so difficult for that person to manage, that family members begin to be affected by the Service Member’s behavior in a way that affects the family member(s) emotionally, behaviorally, socially and or physically. It is important to remember this is not the intent of the person who had experienced the trauma.

At the same time, it is important to identify signs and have the Service Member identify their difficulties, seek professional help, and get support for you or family members who may need additional support at this time. This is the perfect time to be informed that there are many families who have experienced PTSD and Vicarious Trauma and have made it through as healthy happy families. Many people wait way too long to say, “Hold on a second, we need some help here!” You may ask, how do I know if my significant other needs support or me or my children?

Questions to ask

Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Are things getting better?
  • Do you feel at a loss for what to do?
  • Are you worried about the Service member almost continually?
  • Have you become concerned over how your children are handling the
    increased stress at home?
  • Is there a change in how you are feeling physically?
  • Have you become more emotional i.e. angry, sad/tearful, anxious
  • Has the situation impacted your ability to concentrate?

Your answers to these questions will let you know if you need to contact someone to assist in getting help.

If you have contacted a therapist for yourself or your children here are some of the things you may want to do while you wait for your appointment. If you are a spouse and have children, remember if you are on a plane and the oxygen masks come down, put your oxygen mask on first. Once you are ok, you are able to help your children.

Attend to your needs to heal Vicarious Trauma

Here are 5 Basic Areas of Self-Care that help us keep our lives balanced when we attend to these needs. They include physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and intellectual well-being.

Physical is to keep our bodies healthy and to release stressful energy by eating properly, limiting alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough sleep.

Emotional care is having an outlet to share our concerns, worries, joys, successes, tribulations, and ways to cope with intense emotions.

Spiritual is for each person to interpret as they see fit, which could be a walk in nature, reading Religious material, meditation, or writing poetry that works spiritually for you.

Social to be engaged with others to have a support system or interest that you share with other people to ensure you have connections in your life; and Intellectual each person needs to feed their mind, be it through artistic talents, taking classes, joining a similar interest group to keep our mind active to ensure you are taking care of yourself.

Find some “me time”

Find time to have for yourself, during this time do you want to meditate, pray, exercise, read a book, or go for a walk? You need some “Me” time.

First, you have to ask yourself when would be the best time for “Me” time. Do you prefer to take time for yourself in the morning or evening? Learning breathing exercises is a great way to decrease stress and regain emotional control. If you work on diaphragmatic breathing exercises you will find having an increase of oxygen in your system is beneficial in several ways. Start out with “Starfish or 5-Finger” breathing. Children can also be taught this technique.

First hold out your hand with fingers spread, use the pointer finger from your other hand, and place it at the base of your thumb. Start to trace up your thumb and while doing this inhale through your nose, pause at the top of your thumb (about 5 seconds), and then continue to trace down your thumb with your index finger, exhale using your mouth while tracing down your thumb. When you get to the bottom of your thumb, pause again for 5 secs. Begin tracing up your next finger inhaling through your nose when you reach the top, pause for 5 secs, continue down exhaling out of your mouth, and continue using all of your fingers. This is something that can be done sitting at school, or in the office and it will help you to refocus, help to calm down, and think more clearly. Doing this before going to sleep, alternating hands 10 times often helps put children to sleep and quiets an adult or teen’s mind to be more relaxed while trying to fall asleep.

Exercise to heal Vicarious Trauma

Physical exercise is important, if you have difficulty fitting it in, one way to do this with children is to stop at a park on the ride home and spend some time playing with the kids, or find a nature trail-even a 15 min walk will increase exercise! This adds to having family time as the kids get extra time with you. Homework and laundry will all still be waiting for everyone when you get home. The time spent taking a walk together, playing at the park, or doing other brief activities you can think of, prior to getting into the evening routine, may be a nice stress reducer for all involved.

Find creative outlet

There are so many different ways people express Vicarious Trauma if you have children who have begun to show an increase in anger, you can provide them with markers or crayons and a drawing pad. Show them how to express emotions by drawing them. They may choose to make teardrops or wavy lines of one color if they are sad. Some might choose to scribble lines all over in different colors to show confusion or anger. Some may draw different pictures to portray their
emotions. However, they choose to do this is an acceptable way of expressing their emotions. It is important to be available if they want to share what they were expressing, or allow them to keep the emotion to themselves until they are

Creative social media therapist

Older children or teens and adults may also like a journal they can choose to share or keep private. Writing about their emotions positive or negative, expressing themselves is beneficial. They can choose to ask for assistance if the emotions become overwhelming and talk to a parent or Counselor.

Physical expression

Another easy way to help them get their anger or frustration out is to have them do jumping jacks. If they count along with the jumping jacks they are also getting to use their voice which is a plus for the ones who have a lot to say and use physical expression when they don’t always have words for what they are feeling. Jumping jacks can be fun, not a punishment but have them do 20, then 20 more, and point out they are only 10 away from 50. See if they can do 15 more, then 10 more, and point out they only need to do 25 more to make 100. Even middle schoolers are surprised they just did 75 jumping jacks and want to make it to 100.

Children willingly choose activities that make them feel in control. They do not want to lose control either and with gentle guidance, they will resort to the alternative options of hitting or being destructive. This makes them feel better about themselves and you will find you are not yelling as much. Fidgets, having fidgets on hand for those who experience anxiety when their stress level increases. There are numerous gadgets that I have available for people to use in my office from Squeezing toys, tactile balls, cubed gadgets, beads, and multi-tactile items. For many people, just having the option to hold onto something while they are explaining themselves helps decrease their stress levels.

Seek therapy

The most important suggestion I can provide to you is not to wait until you feel you are drowning and do not know where to turn to call for therapy.

The few options listed above are some coping skills to help get through some of the many
emotions or stressors that may come with Vicarious Trauma. The few coping skills I included do not take place of working through the difficulties and being prepared to manage strong emotions when or if they arise in the future. Vicarious Trauma is real and there is a way to manage the intensity it can create within a family or a person. A person or family experiencing this does not have to go through this alone without support.

~ Jennifer E. Matilla, M.S., LMHC-QS, LPC

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