Due to extensive conflicts and peace-keeping efforts in a number of countries, nearly two million service members are currently deployed or are returning from deployment. When military members deploy, their adult spouses are left with more responsibility and less support, which can put more stress on the marriage/relationship. Adult spouses are not the only family members who experience increased stress in the event of deployment. In today’s military, nearly 50% of all Armed Forces members are parents, and the absence of a parent introduces a complicated emotional challenge for children.
Effects of Deployment on Children
Because military members are often deployed to combat zones, children have a very real fear for their parent’s safety. In addition to the stress of wondering if mommy or daddy will come back home, children also fear that their stateside parent may leave them as well. It is reported that these children may experience a fear of abandonment, which is also common among children of divorce. Like children of divorce, children of deployed parents may feel they are to blame for their parent’s leaving.
Based on the age and maturity of the children, they may not have the awareness or vocabulary to articulate their thoughts and feelings in ways that adults clearly understand. Rather, their feelings may be communicated through changes in behavior, which may vary depending on the child’s age. Some changes in behavior may be temporary; the child’s behavior may return to normal after having a few days or weeks to adjust to their parent’s absence. However, some behavior changes may persist—a sign that the child needs additional emotional support.
Warning signs of emotional distress in young children (six years old or younger) may include:
- Clinging to a person or object (like a toy or blanket) for security
- Keeping their primary caregiver in sight at all times
- Crying for no apparent reason
- Becoming shy and withdrawn
- Acting out violently towards people or things
- Having difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or having bad dreams
- Experiencing a change in appetite
School-age children may demonstrate some of the same behaviors as young children, as well as:
- Complaining of frequent headaches, stomachaches or other illnesses
- Becoming more irritable or crabby
- Expressing anger at the at-home parent
- Expressing less interest in school, often resulting in dropping grades
Although adolescents and teenagers are often expected to act like adults, especially when they are tasked with extra responsibilities in a parent’s absence, they may also exhibit many of the same behavior changes as school age children. Adolescents and teens may act out, getting in trouble more frequently at home, at school and possibly with the law. Older children may internalize their fears and emotions, expressing an increase in self-criticism and decrease in self-esteem. Many of the behaviors and perspectives of teen children of a deployed parent are similar to symptoms of clinical depression.
Unfortunately, the homecoming of the deployed parent may not alleviate the child’s stress. If the deployed parent returns with PTSD or other mental or physical disability, (re)adjustment to the parent’s return introduces a new kind of stress that may elicit the same behavioral issues. Military parents who experience post-deployment PTSD and/or depression, especially, report having difficulty establishing a warm relationship with their children.
Making Deployment Easier
There is no way to completely eliminate the stress of having one parent leave for weeks or months, but there are ways in which parents can help their children prepare for and weather the deployment better.
First, parents should consider being honest with their children about deployment. Giving children time to prepare and process the coming separation may help them to understand the reason for the absence and may help alleviate fears of the possibility that the stateside parent may leave them as well.
Here are some considerations to assist your child in preparing for the deployment of a parent:
- Sharing your feelings about the deployment
Children may learn to better understand and articulate their emotions when modeled for them by adults. Knowing that negative feelings are accepted and normal may help allay feelings of guilt that can add stress as well.
- Exploring the destination
Deployment can be treated as an opportunity to learn about a new place—its culture, language, food, etc. Keeping your child’s school informed of coming changes can also allow the exploration to become a classroom activity, which extends your child’s emotional support network to include your child’s teachers and peers.
- Creating an activity that helps children see time passing and the deployed parent’s return
- Letting your child help you pack
Allowing children to be involved in the preparation process reportedly gives them an opportunity to care for the deploying parent. They may also leave reminders for the deployed parent, helping strengthen and maintain a connection while away.
Research shows that the emotional health and stability of children of deployed parents is significantly impacted by the mental and emotional state of the at-home parent. Stateside spouses are encouraged to use their resources—family, friends, community and service providers—to manage stress and get the help they need so that they can stay strong for their children.
There are a number of resources for the spouse and children of deployed military members, such as Military.com and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Should family law issues arise during deployment or as a result of unsuccessful readjustment to a spouse’s return, you may seek the help of an experienced Colorado family law attorney by contacting the Law Office of Gordon N. Shayne.
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