PTSD Complicates Custody Cases


  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder develops after an individual has experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.
  • In divorce and custody cases, PTSD can be used against the individual.
  • There are resources to help individuals suffering from PTSD
handling parental alienation

After dealing with a traumatic event in one’s life or after coming back from serving in the military overseas, post traumatic stress disorder is a common condition for one to suffer from. Adding a custody battle with a soon-to-be ex-spouse can add to the anxiety and mental anguish that one who has PTSD already deals with on a day to day basis.

What it is

Post traumatic stress disorder is described as a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is broken down into two categories: chronic (ongoing) or acute (short term). In order to classify it as PTSD, the symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work. Recovery times vary, depending on the individual and whether it is chronic or acute.

It is also a condition that requires at least one reoccurring symptom, at least one avoidance symptom, at least two arousal and reactive symptoms, and at least two cognition and mood symptoms, according to the institute. Triggers for these symptoms can include words, situations, or objects that remind the individual of the traumatic event that they experienced.

Divorce and custody battles

Divorce can happen at a variety of ages, which is why when someone who is suffering from PTSD is experiencing a divorce or is in the midst of a custody fight, the stress and anxiety of the situation can cause some of the symptoms to surface. In situations involving military members, legal procedures questioning your fitness as a parent or some of your faults as a spouse can feel like the critical nature of military superiors all over again.

Custody battles involving parents who suffer from PTSD can get ugly quickly. Your co-parent could cite your behaviors associated with PTSD, especially if it is untreated, to suggest that you are an unfit parent, according to PTSD Treatment Help, a resource for people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes, the behavior of a parent who suffers from PTSD creates an atmosphere that causes the child’s behavior and feelings to reflect the parent’s own. This can be cited in court, as a critical point against the parent from PTSD.

Having a parent pass down their post traumatic stress disorder is a phenomenon described as intergenerational transmission of trauma, and it can often be caused by a child’s lack of understanding of what a parent went through, according to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs. It also can manifest through a child’s desire to be like their parent, which is something that the courts would consider during a custody case.

The results of the disorder also can have a critical impact on your case. A parent or spouse suffering from PTSD can sometimes devolve into displaying violent or abusive behavior. This can cause some courts to view the custody battle as a case involving domestic violence and find any act of violence committed as relevant material to the determination of custody.

Potential harm

One of the myths regarding domestic violence is that if children are not abused directly, they are not harmed by the exposure to it, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. The truth is that children may suffer from exceptional emotion and behavioral issues related to the trauma of being exposed to domestic violence.

Domestic violence isn’t the only behavior of PTSD that can cause doubt in the minds of the courts. Sometimes, frequent symptoms such as a moment of panic at the sound of loud noises, can create enough concern and doubt in parenting abilities, that courts could rule against the individual suffering from PTSD.

The case

The Syracuse Post-Standard profiled a veteran father, suffering from PTSD, who is seeking custody of his 2-year-old son. Shaun Portaleos is a discharged Marine, who was caught up in a custody battle in state and federal court for two years.

The question that the courts had to ask themselves was if in protecting the child, were they punishing the traumatic soldier who fought for the United States? Courts had to decide whether PTSD should count against a veteran, and the courts decided that Portaleos will see his son six days out of every 14 days.

Helping children understand

One of Portaleos’ claims was that spending time with his son helped him cope with the trauma, and that can be an excellent distraction to the disorder. However, when a child gets older, they begin to question aspects of the disorder, in order to learn and understand it for themselves.

According to the VA, the process for them to learn and understand PTSD starts with the parent suffering from the condition to explain it to them, without burdening the child with graphic detail. A child needs to be made aware that it is not their fault that their parent is suffering from PTSD. Age and maturity determine the detail that a parent can go into with the information.

Resources to help

Although we, at Men’s Divorce, would prefer you seek treatment for the condition through the proper medical and mental healthcare channels, here are a variety of other resources that help individuals suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. For veterans, 1-877-WAR-VETS is set up as a confidential call center that works around the clock to help combat veterans and their families. It allows them to call to talk about their military experience or any other issue they are facing. There also are Veteran Centers set up, in order help transition members of the military into civilian life.

For civilians, there are a variety of treatment centers, such as Bridge to Recovery, Magnolia Creek, and Recovery Ranch, dedicated to helping individuals suffering from PTSD. Most therapist and mental health care professionals have training and experience helping people recover from trauma.

PTSD isn’t as linear as many conditions, so finding an end point can be challenging and sometimes impossible. However, the condition should not a parent from wanting to be a part of their child’s life. As long as they are actively being treated by professional, they are taking the first steps in putting their children first: through making themselves well. It doesn’t make them unfit. If anything, they are setting an example for their children in how to ask for help.

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