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
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|
|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 firstname.lastname@example.org