Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Back to School with PTSD and TBI

So the end of the summer has come for my school aged children and thought I would touch on this subject as this is one I really have stayed away from. While my brain was whooping with joy and my feet skipping gallantly down to the bus stop....the fear, anxiety and dread filled my stomach once again as soon as my children got on the bus. For those that really don't know much about my children; we have a three, five and fourteen year old boys. My littlest dare devils were pre and post deployment babies, so never had to deal with outside care other than my mother in law and an occasional sitter via our close friend, "Aunt Gracey", as my boys call her. Since my husband left as my middle son was born, the only one out of the three is my oldest who really knows the difference between "old" and "new" dad. After deployment and because of my son's older age, I educated as much as I could about the subjects of PTSD and TBI. I initially had reservations regarding this because although he knew what was going on somewhat, I wanted to allow him to still be a boy and not create a man so to speak, before his time.

While he still struggles just as we all do, he seems to understand more now that he is armed with the knowledge and like all of us, learning through mistakes. We didn't experience some of the depression, acting out or bad behavior as some other families are dealing with living with our types of households other than a few minor incidents at home and of course, prepubescent attitudes. I did however go through hell last year which is what we are going to talk about now. With school gearing up for all of us, I have seen an influx of "back to school" fears enter my mailbox, especially those of you who are National Guard and Army Reserve families.

Now for the active duty side of the house, I can't really tell you much about what goes on because we were never on a post or had to deal with schools like that. I can only say that on the RS/NG side, it's pretty hard because we aren't around military oriented communities and therefore our teachers and employees, (unless military related) really don't know much about our families and such struggles. I WILL say that many of you who have expressed your concerns and fears, were a ton of active components which is just damn sad. Why on posts are you all having so many issues? It's completely unacceptable! I am wondering why since PTSD and TBI is such a prevalent topic in the news that these teachers are not educated! Hopefully everyone can find something in my post that they can relate to, give you ideas, comfort you in you aren't alone or hell, at least a chuckle! I also hope this will spawn some of you to come out in the open and leave comments so others can share your advice or concerns! I completely understand what everyone wrote especially the email with the subject liner of "HOLY HELL-I'm SCARED to send my children to school!!!!". I have to admit that this year, I was dreading it a little bit. We are transitioning into newer schools for both my school aged children. One into Kindergarten at a closer school and one into dum dum dummmmm...high school. I was a bit concerned and wondered if perhaps I should have reconsidered talking to my Cardiologist about upping my Xanex dosage!

Last school year, the one problem I had and my biggest fear was not my older son but my middle son. At the age of four, he tested high enough to attend our county's first guinea pig project of Pre-School in the school system. Other than just being around Nana and a friend, he has always been with the family. I thought having the opportunity to get out and learn, plus the socialization would be wonderful for him and allow him to blossom before Kindergarten. While he did exceptionally well, we faced a TON of challenges that we weren't really sure how to address or where to turn to for help. It wasn't that my son was a misbehaved child and for a while, we never got a note home from the teacher or phone calls. I thought he was doing pretty well.

I suddenly get a HUGE letter asking for a parent teacher conference "as soon as possible-like tomorrow after school possible". Now, I wanted our family to seem normal and although I am very proactive about PTSD and TBI. I guess I wanted my children to have a normal school year. I am sure many of you can relate to that statement because although we no longer fit in the "normal category" in much of the military world, we are especially abnormal in the civilian one. We try to act as normal as possible. When enrolled, I didn't talk to the teacher about my child facing such mental and physical challenges at home because I wanted him to be treated normally and give him the opportunity to find himself without being defined by PTSD and TBI which often happens with ALL of us.

 I attended the parent teacher conference bracing myself for bad behavior. What could he have possibly done to warrant such a nasty gram home? Not listening, biting other children, the kid who eats the paste, snorts glitter, runs with scissors? What could be possibly going on that she would send such a note home to me with such harsh words? The worst I could figure was that he was repeating strong sentiments expressed by my "PTSD Beast" or maybe was acting like a goof ball in class. So after much nail biting, a quick pep talk in the mirror, I stayed after school with my son to attend the dreaded conference. I had a bad feeling and it just sort of hung off me the whole day like twenty pound sandbags around the neck.

The start of it all was "Your child is an excellent student BUT...." and I braced myself. Here was this teacher all of a sudden ranting and raving over my child and what were her complaints? He was too loud. He liked to be the loudest of them all on the playground and yell. Sometimes his "inside voice" was too loud for her and with the many "centers" that offered educational toys...he wanted to stick with the ones that created sounds and of course...play the loudest. She had one center with trucks and cars like fire trucks and police cars with sirens. He would go in and immediately want to use that center and then not leave. She said he was testing her patience. I have to tell you Readers...I started laughing because I thought to myself and told the teacher "Is that it?". I was relieved in a way that my child wasn't going to suffer from a glue poisoning or be the kid that is the class clown and always in trouble. However, I was kind of stunned because it was like what do I do with that? So after many many many examples, and some serious evil eyes from her, I broke down and explained.

I let it ALL come out from start of being injured up til then and when I was done....she looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. Big bug eyes, alarmed face, confusion and a frown said it all. I felt absolutely deflated because I knew she just wasn't and didn't "get it". I felt like a made a HUGE mistake but kept stumbling on like some rambling lunatic. I explained that my son's behavior is explainable and it was due to his wanting to play with such toys, because we can't have them home as they set my husband off. We can't be very loud or yell, because it startles my husband so severely and then sets him off. We have to talk a wee bit louder than most because my husband lost quite a bit of his hearing and with two other brothers, he has to talk a little bit louder. I am also deaf in my right ear and can't afford hearing aids for both ears, so he does have to talk a little louder. She said she understood but I could see it in her eyes. It was as if I suddenly sprouted three heads and told her the mothership had just landed on the playground. I told her we would work on these "behavior problems" and to understand that we are a little bit challenged when it comes to expectations than those of other children.

We were batting a thousand right out the gate as the year rocked on. We not only had these noise issues but we also had the immaturity because he was the only (just turned) 4 year old they had in the entire program as the others were five going on 6. It was a constant barrage of phone calls, nasty grams home, parent teacher conferences, and then to make it worse....volunteer time. I wish I could have, looking back on it, explained how badly I wanted to be on every freaking field trip that the class took. I wanted to not only be there for my son, but wanted so desperately to dive into the excitement, the laughter and the funny things small children do at that age. When my son was at school, its like watching our service animal. Gunny works and works hard, but when he gets the chance man does he run and well, just wants to be and act like a dog! My son was similar to that and what I could see running, squealing and laughing was completely different of the child that comes home in the afternoons. He was happy, having fun and enjoying the time away. I envied that somewhat but also wanted to soak it all up at the same time. My husband and I then became the "non-participating" parents. I could not volunteer my time during the day without extensive plans ahead because I had to have someone with my husband and/or younger son. I wanted to go on those field trips and have some fun, but I was not able to do so. The nasty grams always stated the same thing "Your child was being loud on the playground or hallway and not using his inside voice-please have this talk with your child and have it corrected by tomorrow". Ummm ok.

We bought t-shirts when they were made, we bought other school fund raising items which we could not afford on disability income, clipped the hell out of some box tops, made sure our son participated in everything but selling candy which we got a lot of grief over. Our youngest child has a deathly allergy to peanuts and while the cases of candy bars are a hit with most schools....going door to door out here in cow country with a Veteran who has severe PTSD/TBI wasn't a popular idea with me. Not only that, but no matter how hard I tried to explain why I couldn't take two cases home due to Reese's Peanut Butter Cups being in there, we still got the "well alright" with a frown and arms crossed. We couldn't take the box because the oil on PB cups contaminates the entire box and could kill my child. No further explanation to me was needed, but it was like she just kept punishing me because I wasn't there all the time or was able to do the things like the other parents. Each time I picked him up, I pulled up with held breath, ass cheeks drawn up and the feeling like I was the one being punished and not him.

We made it through the school year and he graduated. She gave us a big hug but got the feeling that it was more like "Thank God they are leaving". After the school year ended and summer began, the more I thought about it the more pissed off I got. The entire time, she never offered me the usage of the guidance counselor at the school even during the time my husband broken down and had to be hospitalized. (yeah that was tough to explain my son might have bad days because we just had to put his dad in) We never really talked and came up with a mutual plan for working on the issues he had in class. He did wonderful at his work, wonderful at sharing, writing, listening etc...but would lose his tokens because of being a little loud or playing with a toy that dangled in front of him like gold in front of a thief! It ticked me off because no matter how hard the kid worked.....she set him up for failure because he would lose his tokens no matter what. So when other children would go to the prize box at the end of the week, my son would come home with nothing. I understood the reward system but with children such as ours, there has to be some room for understanding, patience, and expecting hurdles and challenges.

This year, I decided to bite the bullet with the new school and get a head start. I wasn't sure if I was making a mistake, but that's how we have learned much through this journey is from those mistakes. Fortunately for us, my oldest had just left my middle son's new school so they were familiar with my children. I was really panicking because I didn't want to have to worry about this type of stuff on top of everything else. I wanted my child to have a normal education, but at the same time, there has to be room for work on both parts of the parents and the school. I partially accepted blame for allowing last year to happen and for my not stepping up to the plate and letting the schools know. I sat down and after talking with Brannan at Familyofavet.com, I expressed my concerns about this upcoming school year and could she send me some laymen termed information on PTSD and TBI. I then took that, made several copies and then wrote a letter you can find HERE to my son's Kindergarten teacher in my son's point of view. Now from the Facebook page, some commented this may not help many of the older children but it can give you ideas on how to approach your child's teachers. You don't have to use it per say, but you get the idea of where I was trying to come from.

I didn't need one for an older child because I went and talked with the guidance counselor and principal before school started about my oldest son. I wanted to make sure that he could talk and utilize the guidance counselor during the school year. You can use it as a guideline or maybe you have other ideas. I took this packet and gave a copy to the teacher, the guidance counselor, the principal and the vice principal and made a copy to the school board. I was quite surprised at the reaction, the comments and the help they offered once it was out and I had something well written educational wise (Thank you Family of a Vet!). I found that by taking the horse by the reins this year, pushing my way in and advocating for my children was the best solution for us as far as our challenges. I am hoping this will help not only the teacher, but myself as a parent this year.

For my oldest son, transitioning to a new school PLUS High School to boot, can be pretty brutal as many remember our Freshman year. I was worried that he might have some difficulties especially after this summer when he told me he really no longer fit in "anywhere". Made me think a lot about what my son told me. I didn't realize he felt this way but he said "While most kids my age are worried about no allowance, or so and so just broke up with him/her, I am worried about my dad when I leave home for those 8 hours. Will he kill himself? Will my mom be alright?" It was pretty straight forward and well, honest. This year, my son decided to look into JROTC. I was a little hesitant, nervous and wanted to make sure he was doing it for the right reasons, not just to make my husband proud. He actually wanted to do it and I do believe it was one of the best moves we made. He has made a lot of friends his age and upper class men, sincerely is under scrutiny and expectations from SGT Major S who is a friendly version of Gunny Sarge from the movie Platoon, but he loves it. It gives him something to do extra-curricular and he has found several students in his class that have parents struggling with the same issues. I think the confidence building, the goals and standards are just what he needed. 

I can't honestly tell each and every one of you how to go about doing anything but can say from our experience, so far so good with pushing forward and advocating for my family. It's a little scary, but I felt more comfortable as the Principal called me with the Guidance Counselor and offered any services we may need. Familyofavet.com has a good radio interview which I participated in with many different panelists on board. It is an interesting way to hear different issues come up and what sort of solutions. One was to come up with a "code system" which I have found so far was one of the smartest ideas I learned. With my middle son, we have decided to use a red highlighter on bad days, and the teacher has ALL my contact information. I explained I can't fix any problems if I am not aware of them sooner.

Familyofavet.com also has diligently worked on a Ready to Use School Packet for Parents and Teachers which is ready for download. You can visit HERE to get all the information you need! The best advice I can give all of you is to just try. You are going to make mistakes as a parent, your child is definitely going to make mistakes....it's even harder when you factor PTSD and TBI into the equation. It's difficult but in all of this, you must do what you have to do. Many feel better about NOT bringing up the issues at home, and some do. Some feel that home schooling is an option that best suits their child and that is something that has been brought up a number of times due to the schools in their state/area. The point is....its up to you to advocate and search out resources. Often the school counselors are a lot more educated about PTSD than many of the teachers, if not...educate them!

Another idea to, and one we placed the resource card in our back pockets, was utilizing the Army's Child Youth Services. Relatively new, they have placed School Support Specialists in each state. They can help provide resources, and if need be, even speak to your child's teachers and school employees about the challenges faced at home. This can be done by phone or if feasible depending on location (as you know they have tightened up budgets), they will come to the school. Now they seemed to me to be more Active related, but did offer some great advice, ideas, and offered to be on call anytime that I needed our specialist to step in to set up a meeting, educating and diffusing "situations" that are family related.

I feel better this year myself, and will all this completely help in the whole year? Maybe. This is only the first week of school so I am sure we will stumble on some issues along the way. I am trying to stay focused but have to say that I, as a parent and spouse of a Veteran, feel more confident and sure of myself than I did last year. Embarking on a journey with our children through life is difficult and then the pressures of PTSD and TBI mixing in, can be challenging. You just have to find the right solution for your family and if you fail, keep trying. At least the school system can't fault YOU for not trying to letting them know and educating them. Check out the resources, most definitely check out FOV's Packet for Parents and teachers, and let your mind chew on some ideas on how to best help yourself. At least we can say....we got an A+ for effort!

Still Learning, 


  1. Hey USM. I have been reading your blog for a while and LOVE it! Sometimes you just make me feel better and I like you take on subjects that no one wants to talk about. I wanted to let you know that I have a 1st grader and a 4th grader. I read this and called ACYS and did get through to a school support specialist. They contacted my child's teachers and spoke to them before my kids started school. It worked wonders! I also did the letter you wrote, which made me cry but changed the information. I too read it out loud to my kids so they know that I understand, but I also expect good behavior. Bad behavior is not tolerated or excused because their dad has probs ya know? Anyway, I sent the letter and looked at the family vet packet. Turned out, the teacher has been nicer and more willing to communicate with me than last year. I just wanted to say thank you so much for bringing your story to light. I always enjoy reading your blogs and look forward when you publish a new one. You have been a main source of strength and I don't think you know it, for many of us women. I wanted to let others know too that extracurricular activities is great for kids in school as it keeps them busy, out of the house and gives them something to focus on. Both mine are in football. My husband isn't able to go to the games, but that's ok cause my kids can home and tell him all about it. They know that dad can't go into large crowds as my oldest says he spazzes out. I agree that by getting there first before problems set in, is the best bet. Wanted to let you know that it has worked wonders for us here in TX. Thank you again for all you do! Huge fan, Faith

  2. USM,
    Hi, I am a teacher that just graduated and I'm working my way into the "system." I can honestly tell you that in all of our classes and in our placements I have never heard anything of this, and how children of families are affected. I am very glad that you are speaking about it. I appreciate any parent that has valid concern for their children and their welfare as well as that of their families. I am going to look at the resources and educate myself on this. Please keep doing what you are doing and even if it's one more teacher that is aware then great. Thank-you very much :)

  3. Hi Anonymous, thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog and for taking on one of the hardest jobs I think, there is! Please feel free to check out the Family of A Vet link for Parent teacher packet on these issues. There are quite a bit I know for a fact that are hiding it in fear of what the teachers may think. I know because as you read, I was there. Having this knowledge and the willingness to work with a family with I think, special needs, is going to be the best thing you can do. If you get a job, pass the information out in the teacher's lounge. Anyway we can get this information out to all staff at schools, the best way we can combat the battle at home and allow our children to have a better and fun education! Thanks for all you do!! ~USM


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