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Jacquie Buckley, right, a retired member of the Canadian military, walks with daughter Teresa Steeves, left, and four-year-old grandson Mason Rafuse-Steeves in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Jacquie Buckley, right, a retired member of the Canadian military, walks with daughter Teresa Steeves, left, and four-year-old grandson Mason Rafuse-Steeves in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

‘Vicarious trauma’ from PTSD can be passed from parent to child Add to ...

When retired soldier Jacqueline Buckley sees her four-year-old grandson get angry, she can’t help but think of her own capacity to explode with rage. She also thinks of the fury that can be unleashed by his mother, her daughter.

The former sergeant believes this is the legacy of her post-traumatic stress disorder, a harrowing psychological wound she was diagnosed with in 2009. She suspects it is buried deep in her family tree.

She notes that her own military dad was a stoic man who refused to discuss what he did during postings to Germany and Cyprus. Their cold relationship was not unlike the one she would forge with her own kids.

“I knew he loved me but I don’t think I ever felt it,” says Buckley, who lives in Carstairs, Alta.

Now she frets over the fate of her daughter’s hyperactive toddler, a rambunctious boy who she suspects may have behavioural issues, as well as his 12-year-old half-sister.

Buckley believes they’re hobbled by a rocky childhood in which their young mother fell in and out of violent relationships and became addicted to oxycodone and heroin.

Buckley blames part of those struggles on her own poor caregiving skills, which she says went south in 1998. She was part of a grisly mission to analyse dental remains of the victims of Swissair Flight 111, the airliner that smashed into the Atlantic Ocean a few kilometres from Peggys Cove, N.S., killing all 229 people on board.

At the end of a long day at the morgue, Buckley – a single mom at the time – would go home, have a bath and cry. Her daughter was 10 but Buckley says she “just checked out” as a mother.

“I was home but I wasn’t there,” she says, admitting she “was probably a very mean parent.”

“Looking back, I know I love my children, but I didn’t know how to feel love. I was cold. I had no emotion at all and if I did have an emotion it was probably anger,” says Buckley, who was medically released from military service in 2010.

Today, Buckley suspects her children and grandchildren are mirroring some of her post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, believing they suffer from a condition sometimes referred to as “vicarious trauma,” compassion fatigue or secondary PTSD.

Experts define this as the emotional duress that results when someone hears about the first-hand trauma of another person and experiences symptoms that mimic PTSD. It can also affect professionals such as psychotherapists, child welfare workers, emergency personnel or addiction counsellors.

Greg Lubimiv of the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families near Garrison Petawawa says it’s a growing problem for military families, especially as a new generation grapples with the legacy of their parents’ multiple deployments to Afghanistan, the longest war in Canadian history.

“We’ve had examples where a young person has become suicidal, we’ve had cases where children have become depressed … have become very disrespectful of authority, just very angry inside and not really be able to explain what’s going on with them,” says Lubimiv, whose centre serves about 1,500 people a year, 25 per cent to 30 per cent of them from military families.

Right now, it’s not automatic that a PTSD diagnosis also includes screening for the family but “increasingly, the recommendation is that it should be,” says Dr. Patrick Smith of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Buckley says that understanding is sorely needed, recounting her frustrating battles to secure therapy for her daughter.

“Families need so much more than I think they realize and I don’t think they actually get it,” she says.

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