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Commentary | Dec. 5, 2011

Kids and deployments

By AJ Brandt and Julie Couture JBLE Family Advocacy Outreach Managers

Deployments can be stressful for everyone - the active duty member, the spouse, family members, the children and even the family pets. Trying to get everything ready for the deployment can take its toll, but it can sometimes distract families from the inevitable reality that they will be temporarily separated. When we deal with the immediate tangible tasks that must be completed, the emotional tasks can be put on the back burner. As with everything, the emotional issues sooner or later manage to move to the front burner, regardless of whether the timing is appropriate.

Children are more resilient than most people realize. They are also, as most know, quite impressionable. Take the child that falls down. There are times when she falls down, and looks to her mother to see what reaction she should have. If her mother looks shocked and aghast, the child will start to cry. If her mother simply helps her up or makes light of it, the child will more than likely not fuss. Obviously, if they are hurt, children do not need to take their cues from anyone about how to feel.

This can be translated to deployments. During deployments, adults at times feel stressed, overwhelmed, frustrated, or even depressed, all of which are normal. Children will notice this, and will start to mirror their parent's or caretaker's emotions. They will have their own emotions during the deployments, but those can be heightened by tuning into the emotions of others. Infants and toddlers may be fussy and clingy, school age children may have stomach aches, and older children may have symptoms that resemble depression. None of these reactions needs to be on-going as there are ways to help children ride the waves of the deployments.

Infants and toddlers thrive when given attention and affection. It is impossible to spoil a young child by giving him hugs and attention. Positive attention causes a child to feel loved and valued. Even with all the love in the world, they will feel some stress as a result of the deployment if only for the fact that a change has occurred. Infants and toddlers are unable to adequately express how they feel through words. So, they cry. They pitch fits - big ones, usually in public. They hit others, sometimes the people they care the most about. It is difficult to do, but if you keep in mind that these reactions are a result of feeling sad, confused, and scared, it can be easier to address your child when the meltdowns occur.

One child I know would just melt into tears at times while her father was TDY. So, she had a picture of her father that she would talk to, and she was given something of his so that she could feel like a part of him was still with her. But sometimes, the only solution was to simply let her cry it out. After all, when a child misses her parent, isn't it appropriate for her to feel sad?

School-age kids are a hoot. They have the most vivid, creative imaginations. These imaginations can be used for good, as in play, or for misery, as in the times they think of the worst case scenarios. My brother is currently deployed for a year. His son, who has just turned five, has told his mother that he doesn't want her to die. He is not told anything about where my brother is or what he does, but nonetheless, his very absence has instilled a fear of death in my young nephew.

It can be disarming to hear the things that go through their heads, and sometimes, our first response is not always comforting, especially if the children speak our own fears out loud. When they say something that shocks us, the best thing to do is to take a breath, and ask them to clarify. Once you have all the pieces of the puzzle, it's easier to put the puzzle together so you can address their concerns. Their fears are real, and what they need is to feel validated. Tell them limited information, but focus on the positives and reasons why they have not heard from the deployed parent. And then, distract them. Play with them. Ask them to help you with a chore. If they are not distracted, their imaginations will get the best of them and they'll end up with stomachaches, headaches, and other illnesses brought on by their anxiety.

A study of 1,500 children by the Rand Corporation has found that girls in general and older children in particular (pre-teens and teens) have more difficulty adjusting to deployments than any other age group. Kids in these age groups are very aware of what's going on around them, and are forming their own opinions of the war, deployments, and even the military. They are now more influenced by their peers and the media than by their parents, which can be confusing for them. Pre-teens and teens can also be stressed during this time by assuming more responsibility at home. When they are stressed, their symptoms tend to mimic those of adults; they become depressed, their school performance deteriorates, they don't associate with their friends; they may become more aggressive, or they may abuse alcohol and other drugs.

There are a few things parents can do to help their children, regardless of their ages. First, try as much as possible to stick to a routine. Structure makes children feel safe, especially when there has been a significant change. Secondly, try to spend one on one time with each child. This can be difficult to do, given the many demands that the now single parent or new caregiver has to address. So, focus on quality time. Spending time interacting with your child for 10 or 15 minutes, even if it is getting supper ready, is much more effective than spending an hour with them in front of the television. Another thing parents can do is to have weekly family meetings where issues can be discussed. Weekly meetings can help families stay on track and allow them to spend time together. After the meeting, make it a new routine to have game night, pizza night or an outing. The event does not need to cost a lot in order for kids to have fun.

Perhaps the most important thing parents can do for their children is to make sure they are taking care of themselves. There are a variety of services and programs that can help parents cope with deployments.

The Family Advocacy Program offers New Parent Support, a home visit program for parents who are expecting a child or who have a child under age three. For temporarily single parents, or parents with children older than age three, Family Advocacy Strength-based Therapy can be useful. Both services can be accessed by calling 764-2427 at Langley or 878-0807 at Fort Eustis.

For more information on the study conducted by The Rand Corporation, please visit http://www.rand.org/news/press/2009/12/07.html