Children and Deployment: Helping Them Cope
Jack T. Judy
I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, "Mother, what was war?"
It’s a great feeling when the “Freedom Bird” touches US soil and you know you don’t have to go back…at least not any time soon. This trip home isn’t a rest and recuperation trip, not a temporary duty trip, but your last trip out of the combat zone. You finally get home to see your family. It becomes a situation filled with mixed emotions. Things are not going to be the same; the family’s learned to fill the void left by their deployed Soldier. You’ve been on the other side of the world living out a mundane routine in an austere environment with few if any creature comforts. Perhaps a little more high adventure than you would prefer…perhaps more heartbreak and sorrow than you care to remember; an emotional rollercoaster. Now it’s time to get your life back to the way things were before you left. Nevertheless, you get home and things just don’t “feel” the same. As time goes by everything appears normal, then the children bring home their report cards. Your previous “A” students are now hovering in the “D” range. You’re receiving more calls from school about behavior problems; just seems recent. What’s going on? The kids never had these issues before you left, why now? Could it be the separation and angst children experience when one of their parents is deployed?
To mitigate the potential consequences on their children, military families need to understand and proactively address the potential traumatic effects separation can have on dependents before, during, and after a deployment. Unfortunately, before and during a deployment a Soldier’s focus is on the upcoming mission, and family requirements are not the leading priorities. The Army maintains the welfare of families as a high priority; ensuring families are prepared for long absences, single parents have care plans, units establish family support groups (FSG); but don’t always address the potential effects of a deployment on the family until the unit’s return. So what can a Soldier and family do to mitigate the effects from long separation? First, they need to understand the potential effects before symptoms manifest; second, understand what types of programs are available; and finally, make a plan and take proactive steps to address the potential effects.
Not My Kid!
Parents need to realize and understand the potential risks before they deploy to help determine a course of action. So why do this before deployment? The SAF V Survey Report: Adjustment of Army Children to Deployment Separations found that parent’s surveys rated their children as coping well when surveyed during the deployment, however rated their children as coping less well once the deployment was over. [ii] This indicates that either the parent doesn’t recognize reduced coping skills or the skills get worse after the deployment. Proactive preventative measures may help negate and/or mitigate the effects on children.
The child’s perception of reality affects their ability to cope with the ambiguity of the deployment and, most noticeably (for a parent), tends to manifest in the behavioral and academic arenas. In this age of technology, our children are bombarded with images that can shape their perception of reality. For example, regardless of the service member’s actual duty requirements, news coverage and the proliferation of combat related video games can shape the children’s thoughts. The news broadcasts the explosions, “shock and awe”, and the violence of war, as do many video games. This becomes the perceived reality, which contributes to the effects on the children. Reality may be that the parent is working in a permissive environment and rarely leaves a secure facility. Yet the news broadcasts images of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks or Soldiers in street-to-street combat because that is the “news”. Children interpret this as what their parent is doing because that’s what Soldiers are doing “over there”. The December 2005 SAF V Survey report found the two most common problems with children were the fear of what could happen to the parent (37%) and sadness (35%). [iii] Therefore, in the family members mind, all they know is that their loved one is in a hazardous environment but “at any one time cannot know how close to conflict they may be, especially in an era when terrorist insurgents are the enemy”. [iv] All these inputs will drive behaviors.
The behavioral effects range from being able to cope well[v], to “lashing out”, hiding emotions, disrespecting parents and authority figures[vi], and a lower threshold for emotional outbursts.[vii] A key finding in the SAF Survey Report was “About half of Army children cope well with deployments”.[viii] Conversely, half cannot cope well, and “coping well” does not translate into “no problems at all”. These other behaviors won’t immediately surface, and by the time they do, parents have missed an early widow of opportunity to address and attempt to mitigate the effect(s), resulting in longer treatment to help the child. The effects of separation also encroach into academics.
Children of deployed parents suffer academically. According to a recent Rand study, “children whose parents have deployed 19 months or more since 2001 have modestly lower (and statistically different) achievement scores compared to those who have experienced less or no parental deployment.”[ix] The study goes on to say that, the 19-month deployment time is the primary contributing factor while the number of deployments is not. The interpretation is “19 or more cumulative months suggests that, rather than developing resiliency, children appear to struggle more with more cumulative months of deployment”. [x] With many tour lengths at 12 months, and service members experiencing multiple deployments, the 19-month threshold is not difficult to surpass. The evidence is clear that lengthy separations are likely to affect children in several ways, so parents should address the potential issues early.
So, What Do I Do?
Understanding the potential effects of deployment on children is the first step in addressing the issue; next is taking steps to mitigate and/or prevent undesirable effects. To start, the onus is on the parent(s) to initiate practices and seek programs to help their children cope with separation anxiety from deployments. Begin with education, and before the deployment. A good place to start is the local Army Community Service center. The Army Community Service Mission is:
…an empowered team that provides comprehensive, coordinated, and responsive advocacy and prevention, information and referral, outreach, financial, employment, Soldier and Family Readiness, Exceptional Family Member and relocation assistance services that support the readiness and well-being of Soldiers and their Families, Civilian Employees, and Retirees.[xi]
This is an agency dedicated to the Army family. The website is also a good resource that provides a wealth of information for families. Other websites such as the Army OneSource (http://www.myarmyonesource.com/default.aspx) and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (http://www.nctsn.org/) provide a wealth of information on dealing with deployments and separation. The Army OneSource provides a collection of links and information ranging from Community Support to Family Programs and Services. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides information not only geared to educate parents on child stressors, but for educators, mental health, and medical professionals as well.
Parents should take steps to prepare children for upcoming deployments. Preparing children for an impending deployment provides a foundation of understanding for what is really happening instead of allowing the child’s imagination to invent facts. Some areas parents can address are to be truthful, share feelings, and explore the destination with the child. [xii] Children are perceptive and can detect changes to normal routines. Parents should be open and honest with their children; attempting to shield the children can make them assume something worse. [xiii] Sharing feelings with the children can help identify any concerns and provide parents an opportunity to address them early. Exploring the deployment destination will take out some of the mysterious element for the child. The parents can use a map or globe to map out the route and show where they are going.[xiv] The more factual information parents provide children, the less the children will need to invent to answers their questions. Preparing children early provides a good start to help children cope, and parents need to continue helping the children throughout the deployment.
The US Army Deployment Support Handbook: Children and Youth is an outstanding publication providing an abundance of information to help parents (caregivers and other professionals as well) deal with the challenges children have with deployments and separation. This handbook provides an excellent “start to finish” account of how to deal with deployment and separation. Within the handbook, it addresses the importance of Supportive Family Relationships, Effective Communication, and Critical Thinking as important areas to discuss during a deployment. [xv] The first two areas are relatively intuitive and common to parents; however, the critical thinking concept isn’t as common. “Critical thinking is the ability to analyze valid and reliable information, understand logic and reason, and synthesize and evaluate solutions to problems based on desired values and goals.” [xvi] This sounds like a complicated concept and beyond a child’s capability. Simply stated, it is a way to process information to arrive at logical conclusions. Parents can help develop this skill. Some steps that help develop critical thinking are; help children identify the problem; help collect and analyze information; discuss values; help identify choices; and help implement a solution.[xvii] Perhaps a child’s thinking process won’t be as complex as an adult’s will, but not beyond the realm of possibility for children. Take some time to help develop this skill. The reintegration process after deployment is the final, but still important element of helping children cope with the separation.
Just because a deployment is over and the service member returns, that doesn’t mean everything is going to be as it was prior to the deployment. Returning service members need to plan on, and make, reintegration a priority upon returning home. The family is now used to dealing with daily routines and schedules alone. Reintegration of spouses tend to overshadow that of dependent children, so parents need to continue to focus on helping children cope with deployment. Deployment reunions and reintegration are a process, not an event. [xviii] Since not all children are the same, they will process and react in different ways, be prepared for a gambit of different emotions. Some tips to remember upon return are to keep the dialog open with the children (communication); understand the child will need time to readjust; and expect some negative feelings and reactions. [xix] Sometimes children can feel “cheated” from a parent’s long absence. Healing takes time. Parents are not on their own to work though these issues; the services provide support as well.
All services have programs to support family reintegration upon return from deployments, but not every situation is going to be the same. The Soldier returning from their fourth deployment probably won’t experience the same issues as one returning from their first deployment. An older service member may not have the same issues as younger couples; one with traumatic experiences during deployment will have different issues that those with none. The key here is back to education and action. Know where to go to learn and where to get assistance. Along with the post deployment reintegration training opportunities, the local Army Community Service activities are a good place to garner information and assistance. The Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE) Children of Military Service Members Resource Guide [xx] is an outstanding quick reference tool that provides over 100 websites for resources to assist families of children of all ages. Families should use the resources available to find solutions to the unique challenges from the long separations. Besides the potential coping issues from deployments, there are some positive aspects to separation.
Not as evident are some of the positive aspects from separation. Several psychological studies show that despite the distress during separation many children make significant developmental gains. [xxi] Some of the aspects are the separations foster maturity, encourage independence, and strengthens family bonds. [xxii] Finding any endearing aspects of a long deployment is difficult at best, but knowing that there are some potential benefits is the first step to taking advantage of a growth opportunity.
Families need to understand the potential effects of long deployments on children before symptoms manifest; understand what types of programs are available; and take proactive steps to address the potential effects. Education and action are the keys for families to help children cope with the separation. Addressing the potential issues early (before a deployment) will help arm the children’s coping skills and can help negate or mitigate any potential negative effect. Bosses come and go, units and friends fade with time, but at the end of the day, family is always there; take care of them before it’s too late.
Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come.
~Carl Sandburg [xxiii]
Children of Military Service Members Resource Guide http://www.dcoe.health.mil/DCoENews/DCoEReleasesNewChildrenofMilitaryServiceMembersResourceGuide.aspx (accessed: 15 December 2011)
Graham, Bonnie; Mancini, Deborah; “U.S. Army Deployment Support Handbook: Children and Youth” Edited by FMWRC staff. Cornell University, Wells Communication, Ithaca NY, 2007
Headquarters, Air Force Space Command, “Airmen, Civilians, and Family Members REINTEGRATION GUIDE”, www.peterson.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-110602-040.pdf (accessed: 15 December 2011)
Huebner, Angela J.; Mancini, Jay A; Wilcox, Ryan M.; Grass, Saralyn R.; Grass, Gabriel A.: “Parental Deployment and Youth in Military Families: Exploring Uncertainty and Ambiguous Loss”: Family Relations, 56 (April 2007), 112-122, (Blackwell Publishing): http://reachmilitaryfamilies.arizona.edu/sites/.../Huebner,%20A.J.%202007.pdf (accessed: 12 December 2011)
Military.com Spouse; “Deployment: Your Children and Separation”, Military.com http:// http://www.military.com/spouse/content/military-deployment/dealing-with-deployment/deployment-children-and-separation.html (accessed: 16 December 2011)
Orthner, Dennis K. PhD; Rose, Roderick M.S 2005. “SAF V Survey Report Adjustment of Army Children to Deployment Separation”. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill December 2005: http://www.army.mil/fmwrc/docs/saf5childreportoct05.pdf (accessed: 14 December 2011)
The Quote Garden, Quotations for Deployment & Coming Home, http://www.quotegarden.com/deploy-home.html (assessed: 22 December 2011)
Richardson, Amy; Chandra, Anita; Martin, Laurie T.; Setodji, Claude Messan; Hallmark, Bryan W.; Campbell, Nancy F.; Hawkins, Stacy Ann; Grady, Patrick: “Effects of Soldiers’ Deployment on Children’s Academic Performance and Behavioral Health”, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica CA, 2011.
Sogomonyan, Fianna; Cooper, Janice L.:”Trauma Faced by Children of Military Families: What Every Policymaker Should Know “May 2010; National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP): http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_938.html (accessed: 7 December 2011)
U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leavenworth Installation Management Command, Army Community Service (ACS); http://garrison.leavenworth.army.mil/Services/Army_Community_Service.asp (accessed: 16 December 2011)
[i] The Quote Garden, Quotations for Deployment & Coming Home, http://www.quotegarden.com/deploy-home.html (assessed: 22 December 2011)
[ii] Dennis K. Orthner PhD and Roderick Rose, M.S. SAF V Survey Report” Adjustment of Army Children to Deployment Separations (Survey Report). Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill December 2005: http://www.army.mil/fmwrc/docs/saf5childreportoct05.pdf (accessed: 14 December 2011) 4
[iv]Angela J. Huebner et al., “Parental Deployment and Youth in Military Families: Exploring Uncertainty and Ambiguous Loss”, Family Relations, 56 (April 2007), 112-122, (Blackwell Publishing) http://reachmilitaryfamilies.arizona.edu/sites/.../Huebner,%20A.J.%202007.pdf (accessed: 12 December 2011) 113
[v] Orthner, 1
[vi] Fianna Sogomonyan and Janice L. Cooper, ” Trauma Faced by Children of Military Families: What Every Policymaker Should Know “(May 2010); National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP): http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_938.html (accessed: 7 December 2011) 4
[vii] Huebner, 119
[viii] Orthner, 1
[ix] Amy Richardson et al., “Effects of Soldiers’ Deployment on Children’s Academic Performance and Behavioral Health”, (RAND Corporation, Santa Monica CA, 2011) xv
[x] Ibid, xvi
[xi] U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leavenworth Installation Management Command, Army Community Service (ACS); http://garrison.leavenworth.army.mil/Services/Army_Community_Service.asp (accessed: 16 December 2011)
[xii] Military.com Spouse, “Deployment: Your Children and Separation”, Military.com http:// http://www.military.com/spouse/content/military-deployment/dealing-with-deployment/deployment-children-and-separation.html (accessed: 16 December 2011)
[xv] Bonnie Graham and Deborah Mancini, “U.S. Army Deployment Support Handbook: Children and Youth” ed. FMWRC staff (Cornell University, Wells Communication, Ithaca NY, 2007)
[xvi] Ibid, 24
[xvii] Ibid, 27
[xviii] Headquarters, Air Force Space Command, “Airmen, Civilians, and Family Members REINTEGRATION GUIDE”, www.peterson.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-110602-040.pdf (accessed: 15 December 2011) 18
[xx] Children of Military Service Members Resource Guide http://www.dcoe.health.mil/DCoENews/DCoEReleasesNewChildrenofMilitaryServiceMembersResourceGuide.aspx (accessed 15 December 2011)
[xxiii] The Quote Garden