Talking to Kids
Deployment affects children in ways we are just now beginning to realize. The National Military Family Association commissioned the RAND Corporation to find out how this separation affects military kids. Children on the Homefront: The Experience of Children from Military Families lets the kids themselves tell us what it means when a parent deploys. Within our study sample, we noted that the well-being of children was directly related to the mental health of the cargiver. Read the key findings or access the complete article.
Birth to Three
The most intense period of a human's development is from birth to age three. A young child's successful navigation of developmental milestones depends on many different factors with one of the most important being the relationship between parent and child. The more stressors the family experiences during this critical time, the more likely it will influence the child's development in a negative way. The absence of a parent due to deployment combined with the potentially increased inattentiveness of the stressed stay-behind parent can lead to difficulties with the child's social and emotional development. With this in mind, it is important to be tuned in to a baby's and toddler's emotional behavior and keep their environment as consistent and stable as possible.
Tips During Deployment for Birth to Three
According to Zero to Three - a nonprofit multidisciplinary organization whose mission is to support the healthy development and well-being of infants, toddlers and their families - supporting babies and toddlers during deployment can best be done through:
- Keeping routines consistent and predictable
- Using innovative ways to stay connected to the deployed parent
- Learning to be a "Feelings Detective"
- Taking care of yourself
- Nurturing your child
Zero To Three: www.zerotothree.org
Military OneSource: www.militaryonesource.mil
National Child Traumatic Stress Network: http://nctsnet.org/nccts/nav.do?pid=hom_main
Preschoolers are curious. They start to develop their own sense of worth as tasks are learned and mastered. Playing and forming relationships with peers becomes a very important part of their young lives. Preschoolers may be affected by deployment in various ways. Because they are ego-centric in their thinking, when a parent leaves they may believe they did something to cause it. Making the preschooler a part of the farewell, staying connected during deployment, and preparing for the return of a loved one are all vital elements to helping a preschooler through this challenging time.
Tips During Deployment for Preschoolers:
- Have a conversation with your preschooler about where you are going. Let them know you are sad to leave but that it is your job and you have to go. Answer questions in simple terms.
- Decide on a plan to help you and your preschooler stay connected while you're gone.
- Create a goodnight ritual that connects you to your child every night.
- If your child regresses to past behaviors, you should understand it might be their way of showing sadness. You need to correct the behavior without punishing the child.
- Don't be surprised if a toddler shows shyness or stays distant when you return. Let the child get used to your presence on his or her own terms.
School Aged Children
School-aged children are now much more involved with activities outside the home. Their everyday lives may include school, sports, scouting, and church activities to name only a few. A deployed parent missing so many of these activities may make a child sad and angry. Acting out, whining, aggressive behaviors, loss of interest in school and in friends indicate the child is not coping well.
Tips During Deployment for School-Aged Children:
- Communicate! Be truthful and let children know about the deployment early on.
- Share information about where you are deploying. Look it up on the map, discuss the different customs and culture you will encounter. Practice foreign words together.
- Come up with a communication plan. How will you keep in touch?
- Have the child keep a journal highlighting events the deployed parent missed to be shared when the deployed parent returns.
- Inform the child's teacher of the upcoming deployment and keep lines of communication open to deal with the first signs of distress.
Adolescence is difficult under the best of circumstances, but during a parent's deployment even normal circumstances can become complicated. According to Dr. Angela Huebner, Associate Professor of Human Development at Virginia Tech's National Capital Region, and Jay A. Mancini, Professor of Human Development at VT's Blacksburg campus, teens experience several challenges during their parent's deployment. Changes in behaviors, changes in family relationships, changes in routines and responsibilities, the use of formal and informal support networks, communication with the deployed parent, and issues that arise when the deployed member returns home are all concerns experienced by teens. In our Children on the Homefront: The Experience of Children from Military Families study commissioned by the Rand Corporation, we found that older children had a more difficult time with academic engagement and risk behaviors. This was due to many taking on household responsibilities, taking care of siblings, and missing school activities. In particular, female teens reported more anxiety issues than male teens.
Tips During Deployment for Teens:
- Before the deployed parent leaves, plan a special day/event to share with the teen(s).
- Stay connected during the deployment. Use instant messaging, emails, letters, and videos.
- Let the school know of your deployment status. Encourage your teen to take advantage of tutoring, support groups, or extra activities that may be available to them.
- Teens take on new responsibilities while the deployed parent is gone. New routines have been established and teens may have freedoms in their schedules or curfews they did not have before. The re-integration stage may be difficult for both the returning parent and teen. Schedule one-on-one time to re-connect again.
Until military families are relieved of the weight of war, we hope you will continue to contribute to their wellbeing.
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