April is the Month of the Military Child, designated to remind us of the important sacrifices and unique struggles experienced by children of military parents. This month we are meant to reflect on the emotional and psychological impact that parental deployment has on children, and the steps that can be taken to help ease these life-changing transitions.
According to Holly Hallen, of the Military Child Education Coalition, there are almost 4 million military-connected children, 75% of whom are school age.
These children have to prepare for and deal with the long absences of a parent, who will be deployed from 3 to 15 months. They have to adjust to the absence of that parent, and adjust to a new family dynamic. While the military parent is away, the stress and worry about the potential danger the parent is facing can be overwhelming. When the parent returns home, children have to adjust all over again. In addition to this ever-changing family condition, military families also have to frequently displace their lives and move around the country. In some cases a military family will move dozens of times before their child graduates high school.
Every family will have a unique situation, and despite best efforts, a child is going to be affected by the deployment of a parent. However, there are key things to understand about how children of different ages react emotionally, and there are steps that can be taken to help your child adjust to deployment.
Babies & Toddlers:
Children younger than age 3 won’t be able to understand the changes that are occurring in their homes, but they will be able to pick up on the emotional states of their parents and the stress levels of everyone in the house. It’s important to try to remain calm and positive around your infants, and not to disturb their routines. When the deployed parent has departed, the child may react in different ways: expressing distress, missing the parent, becoming very clingy or attached to the remaining parent, displaying signs of depression, and difficulty eating or sleeping. It’s important to give your child lots of extra support, patience, attention and love in this time, and stick to routines in order to help them settle back into what feels normal.
Elementary School-Age Children:
Children from approximately ages 4 to 10 may experience a range of emotions dealing with the deployment of a parent, including sadness, anxiety, mood swings or temper tantrums. They might begin to struggle or act out in school, and may feel like it’s their fault the parent is leaving. They may worry that the other parent will also leave. It’s important to reassure young children that they are loved by both parents, and the deployment was not caused by anything the child did. Some children have difficulties expressing their emotions, so parents can share their feelings and encourage children to do the same, even if the emotions are negative. If your child struggles with words, have him or her draw a picture to express what is going on inside.
Children within this age group may also be concerned with how the deployment will impact their lives. Talk to the child about the changes that will happen and try to emphasize the things that won’t change, to maintain a sense of stability. For example, remind them about an upcoming school function or activity for which they are excited. Also, talk to them about the routines that are going to go on as normal, like their playdates or after-school activities.
Pre-teens and Teenagers:
This age group typically has regular access to news and updates about the war, and what’s occurring in the location of their parents’ deployment. They are likely to be anxious and spend a lot of time worrying about their deployed parents’ well-being. If the parent who remains at home is stressed and struggling to handle his/her emotions, this makes it more difficult for pre-teens and teenagers to cope with their own feelings. However if the at-home parent can stay calm and positive about the deployment, the teen will be able to mirror those feelings to an extent.
Some children in this age group will become matured by the experience and step up to help around the house and/or with younger siblings. This can be beneficial to the family dynamic, and is a great support for the at home parent, but it can also distract teens from their schooling, and if they take on too much, they risk becoming burned out by the extra responsibility. It’s important to encourage them to focus on what makes them happy, and maintain a positive mental health by creating balance in their lives with school, family, sports and other activities. It can be beneficial to communicate with your teen about the war. Find out what they know, where they get their information and news, and discuss this information together.
Don’t let thoughts or memories of the deployed parent fade into the background. It’s important to continue to talk about the deployed parent while he/she is away. This will be beneficial when the deployed parent returns home, and helps the child prepare for his/her return. Maintain as much contact with the deployed parent as possible. Use Skype, Facetime, phone calls and emails to keep in touch. Prepare letters or packages to mail to the deployed parent, and prepare scrapbooks for things your child wants to show the deployed parent when he/she returns home. Also, keep lists for activities and things your child wants to do with the deployed parent when he/she comes home.
Homecoming of the Deployed Parent:
When the deployed parent returns home, adjustments will have to be made by everyone in the family. The deployed parent may struggle to adjust, and may feel overwhelmed. If they are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can make re-adjusting even more difficult. This in turn will affect children, who may struggle to understand why the parent is different, or suddenly has mood swings and anxieties.
Seek out support from the community, family and friends and research PTSD. Talking to a therapist – as an individual or as a family – can help teach patience, communication and support. These are keys elements of getting back to a happy family groove.