EXCLUSIVE GUEST Counsellor Kelli McMillan

I am so pleased to welcome Kelli McMillan, a clinical counsellor whose website “Catapult Solutions” is one of the programs featured under our growing sidebar of related services for vets and their families. Kelli’s contributions will be presented on this page. Today she helps current armed forces members who must leave their families on a mission understand how their children feel, why they behave the way they do and how they can better handle these painful separations.

October 2010 – Psychological Kevlar for the Family

Deployment and Reunion: Taking Care of Your Children — Taking Care of You

 by Kelli McMillan, BSW, RSW, MACP
Deployment and reunion of troops affect loved ones left behind. Do you understand how your children feel?

Regardless of the hard work you put into preparing for deployments, often there is simply no way of fully preparing for the moment you say goodbye and the days that follow. Throughout the deployment phase, try to focus on the positives of separation. The initial adjustment period might seem endless, but military families make adjustments that often lead to new sources of strength, support, maturity and independence.

A Child’s Signs of Stress

Deployment is a time of immense change and adjustment. Even with the best preparation, parents may not prevent their children from feeling stress after a parent’s departure. Younger children may not fully understand why their parent is gone; older kids who do understand Mom or Dad’s job may still become resentful to one or even both parents. Sudden and often prolonged changes in your child’s behaviour may be a response to deployment of a parent. Here is a list of common age-specific signs of stress in children and youth:

A Child’s Signs of Stress
  Ages Behaviors Moods Remedy
Infants < 1 yr Refuses to eat Listless Holding, nurturing
Toddlers 1-3 yrs Cries, tantrums Irritable, sad Increased attention, holding, hugs
Preschool 3-6 yrs Potty accidents, clingy Irritable, sad Increased attention, holding, hugs
School Age 6-12 yrs Whines, body aches Irritable, sad Spend time together, maintain routines
Teenagers 12-18 yrs Isolates, defiance, high risk behavior Anger, apathy Patience, limit-setting, counseling

Helping Children Cope with Deployments and Reunions

The aforementioned chart illustrates provides general signs of stress for various age ranges yet it is important to remember that a child’s maturity level is not necessarily commensurate with chronological age. Here is a list of more specific behaviours you might expect when a child is struggling with separation anxiety and deployment related concerns:

 Preschool- or Kindergarten-Age Children: Increased clinginess, unexplained crying, increased aggressiveness toward people or things, becoming withdrawn, sleep difficulties, and changes in eating patterns. 

School-Age Children: Any of the signs above. Increased complaints about stomachaches or headaches, increased irritability, problems at school with grades, teachers, peers, or anger toward the at-home parent. 

Adolescents and Teenagers: Any of the signs above, acting out at home, school, with the law, low self-esteem; self-criticism, anger over small things, loss of interest in sports, clubs, hobbies, friends, experimenting with drugs, alcohol and sex.

What Your Child Needs…

Children going through deployment often worry about the separating parent, the at-home parent and themselves.  Taking care of your child physically and emotionally can help him or her cope until the deployed parent returns: 

1) For you to take care of yourself:  Studies show that after Mom or Dad’s departure, children often switch their day-to-day concerns from the absent parent to the at-home parent. Use judgment in sharing with your children why you are sometimes irritable or tearful, but definitely find some “you” time:  Get out and exercise, pursue a new hobby, volunteer at your place of worship or your child’s school, spend time with a good supportive friend, take a scheduled nap.

2) Unconditional love and honest, yet age-appropriate communication: Children are perceptive — they know when something is going on, and when there is stress in the family, they will often think it is their fault. Make sure children know they are loved by providing consistent, loving talk time. Listen to their concerns and let them know it is okay to be sad, frustrated or angry. 

3) A healthy lifestyle: As much as possible: Try to keep the kids active in sports, clubs, and hobbies, limit TV and computer time, encourage children to get outside for a walk or bike ride, take time to cook and eat as a family by skipping the convenience of unhealthy fast food.

4) To know about the absent parent and that this deployment will end: Despite their daily activities, children will continue to wonder about their deployed parent.  Where is he? What is she doing? When is he coming home? Take this opportunity to try imaginative and creative opportunities related to the deployment: Explore the country and culture where the deployed parent is stationed, search a map or globe and locate the country, visit the local library to check out books, personal computer games and online encyclopedias for interesting facts.

5) A firm routine and discipline in the home: Keeping a sense of order and routine for children is difficult; it is even more difficult when a parent is absent. Kids will test the at-home parent’s boundaries, rules and routines. Always follow through with a clear set of consequences and rewards to keep everyone on track.

A Unique Challenge — Adolescents and Teenagers:  Here are some ways to help your teenager cope during a parent’s deployment.

1) Maintain structured routines at home.  Teenagers gain comfort from a stable routine at home. 

2) Stick to daily schedules of bedtimes, TV and practices for music, sports or hobbies. 

3) Make time for both light conversation and more serious subjects, letting your teenager discuss the topics that are the most important to him or her.

4) Let your teen communicate on his or her level. Teens are comfortable with text messages, cell phones, e-mail, personal web pages and blogs, encourage exercise and relaxation. 

5) Allow your teenager time with friends to talk, listen to music or attend social events.

Learn to recognize your child’s stress signals and teach him or her age- and maturity-level appropriate coping skills to help him or her through the absent parent’s deployment. 

Editor’s Note: Calgary’s Kelli McMillan, a former police officer, is a clinical counselor for veterans and their families. She specializes in treating trauma, depression, anxiety and PTSD for all serving forces — military, police, firefighters, EMS. For more information or to request helpful tools and resources, please contact Kelli at 1-403-919-7681 or at kellimcmillan@shaw.ca

14 Responses to EXCLUSIVE GUEST Counsellor Kelli McMillan

  1. Laura Wooten says:

    Kelli…I love what you do! Thank you so much for being there for all those families and children. You are so appreciated! I have written a children’s storybook about this very thing…illustrated by my own young daughter Kelly. It is called “With My Little Box of Crayons”. Kelly’s father was gone so much in the military and it had quite the impact on my three children. I would love to talk with you and get you a copy of it. I am trying very hard with the help of a few sources to get this book out to the military families. It has been read in Barnes and Noble…..Borders…etc. and the response was wonderful. It is available on their websites. The families cried and absolutely loved it. Please let me know if we can get together regarding this crucial subject and possibly getting this resource out to as many families as possible. I pray that it makes a difference in so many children’s lives. Thank you so much. Always, Laura Wooten 720 934 3833

    • Laura, Kelli will be replying as well, but I want to let you know that I too will promote your children’s illustrated books. In fact, I would like to feature it here on Homecoming Vets with links to purchase points for families of vets and soldiers who want to buy your book for their children. What you have created is inspiring. As well as I will pass your comment and information to another blogger working with American returning vets that this book for their children is available.


      • Hi Laura, and thank you ever so much for taking the time to respond. I would also like to express my gratitude to you and your daughter for the important and enduring contribution you have both made to military children. I would love to read a copy of the book and would be honored and delighted to approach both the Legion, Veteran’s Affairs, the Canadian Forces, and the Military Families Resource Centres with the intent of securing funding to purchase your book for the children of our communities.

        Please feel free to contact me via email at kellimcmillan@shaw.ca and we can discuss how to ensure your book finds it’s way into the hands of those that need it most. Thank your generous spirit and commitment to helping other military families!

        Best Always


      • Kelli and Laura, this is wonderful to see that through joint efforts, we can actually help vets’ families. In the week to come, I am going to set up a connecting page for books with links to points of purchase we can share that will not only help our vets and their families but also serve as a resource for Christmas gifts that can make a difference to them. Laura, your book will start it off. I hope viewers of this blog will contribute book reviews of those posted to let others know what they thought of the stories or references as well as suggest other books we can add to our “Family Library.”

        Marching forward,


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