Friday, 11 March 2011

Children Coping with Parents Deployed to War

Children face many challenges because of a deployment to war. Deployed parents need to explain to their children where they are going, and how long they will be away. 
As one Dad deployed to Iraq phrased it:
"We need to take time to talk to our children about our feelings, what we do on our job, and what we think of our job. Help them know where we will be and plan ahead to keep in touch with them regularly and often.
Children also need to understand what will happen when the we return home. The amount that children can understand and how they cope depends on their age and how mature they are."

The effects of deployment on children.
Researchers have found that children with deployed parents tend to worry more and be afraid and sad. During war, a child may feel their world is less safe and predictable. Children may fear that you, the parent or other loved family member who is deployed may die in the war. Even if no close family member is affected, they may still feel unsafe.
  • Preschoolers (3-6 years) might think their parent was deployed because "I was bad." They may react with toileting issues, thumb sucking, sleep problems, clinginess, and separation anxiety. They may also be touchy, depressed, aggressive, or complain about aches and pains.
  • Very often, preschool and school-age children also worry about the safety of the parent at home. (One deployed Dad says that his Oldest Son assumed the role of the provider of safety. He assumed the father figure role during his time away from home.)
  • School age children (6-12 years) may perform more poorly in school. They may become moody, aggressive, or whiny. They may get stomachaches, headaches, etc.
  • Teens may become angry and act out. They can also withdraw or act like they don't care about things. Adolescents may also not like new family roles and responsibilities after the deployed parent returns home.
Children may play at war, acting out both sides, and creating good outcomes where the "bad guys" are beaten. This does not mean that they are comfortable with or understand real events. Children play best and most creatively when they feel safe. When they feel real threats or the danger of losing a parent, their play is more likely to be anxious and sad. Play doesn't really give them the answers they need for their fear and worry. Children need adults who can help them work through their fears.
Teenagers may deal with anxiety by engaging in risky and/or illegal behaviors. Teens may be better able to understand these events, but even they still need to be assured and comforted.
Is my child okay?
Make sure you are available for your kids. Be there to listen. Pay attention to how your children are playing. If games end with emotions like sadness, aggression, or worry, help your child work out more positive solutions. Above all, kids need to be sure that we will take care of them as best as and as well as we can.
These are some things to watch for:

Bad temper, difficulties being soothed
Tearfulness, sadness, talking about things that scare them
Anger toward people, picking on minority groups
Getting irritated and fighting with others
Changes in sleep patterns, trouble sleeping
More clinging behaviors at home, not wanting to go to school
Physical complaints (stomachaches, etc.)
Wanting attention
Things to do to help children cope with war.

  • Provide extra attention, care, and physical closeness.
  • Understand that they may be angry (and perhaps rightly so).
  • Limit exposure to news, especially when news repeats and is violent. Younger children should be shielded from this kind of news as much as possible. It will needlessly increase their worry of events they don't understand.
  • Respect your child's timing and ways of coping. Very young children may want to close their eyes or just go out and play. Don't confront children or force them to talk about things when they don't want to.
  • Keep an open door for the absent parent or loved one. Talk with him or her as often as possible, and for important dates like birthdays, holidays, etc. Talk about what it will be like when that person returns and what it would be like if they were here now. This is really important for younger children who may not understand why their loved one is not here.
  • Help your children develop and enjoy fun activities. Distraction can make time go by faster.
  • Stick to routines and plan for upcoming events.
  • Suggest positive and creative ways of coping for older children and adolescents (create scrapbooks and videos, write letters, take photos).
  • Discuss things. Let kids know they can talk about how they feel. Accept how they feel and don't tell them they should not feel that way.
  • Tell kids their feelings are normal. Be prepared to tell them many times.

Talk to help your children deal with war
Take the time to talk about war and deployment. Remember that talking can only make your family stronger. Don't ignore the subject. Do not minimize your child's concerns or stressors. Many parents would like to ignore the situation because thinking about war makes them feel vulnerable and powerless to protect their children and most parents feel that if we bring it up and discuss it is a negative thing. Talking about it ONLY helps and strengthens your family.
Children need a real message about what is happening around them. Children are very good at knowing when things are being hidden from them. Be truthful and honest regardless of the age of your child, but without overburdening, or overwhelming them.
And most importantly, provide lots of love and support.

Make sure that you, the parent-at-home, has support and assistance to cope with your partner's deployment.

With thanks to the Department of Veteran Affairs for contributing to this information.

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