I have been a military spouse for the past 13 years. I have worked for many years helping military families cope with deployments and encouraged them to find effective strategies at handling this difficult time in their lives. The saddest thing is when I see the harsh effects of deployment on my own child. My husband left for his most recent deployment in September 2011, and this time it is for nine months. You would think that after five previous deployments that my daughter and I would have this down to a science, but this time it has been more difficult.
I started noticing behavior changes in my daughter at about the four-month mark. For the first few months she seemed like her normal, happy self. Then out of the blue, I started witnesses acting out behaviors and a personality change in her that worried me. Luckily, I had read the research on the cycle of deployment on children and realized what I was seeing. Sadly, many military families and loved ones of military families do not know what behavior is “normal” and what things are red flags to watch out for.
Research says that children going through deployment experience the same effects as children of divorce. This was an eye-opener for me and helped me have more sympathy for my daughter during her acting out phases. Children worry about what is going to happen to them, and they don’t always understand why the military parent had to leave. I remember my daughter was performing in her school play the night he was due to leave. She was doing great up on stage and spoke her lines perfectly. Then my husband went back to the classroom to pick her up after the recital, and as soon as she saw him she started crying. I saw him carrying her and turn down the hallway. I ran to follow them wondering what was wrong. I found her crying and telling him she did not want him to go. It was heartbreaking. This was the first time she has reacted this way before he deployed. The reason for this is that age has an important role on the behavioral responses of children and on how they react to the deployment. When she was younger she really was not old enough to understand what was going on or that he was gone.
Children’s reactions to a parent’s deployment will very by child, and by the child’s developmental stage and age. Usually very young children show traits of separation anxiety, temper tantrums and changes in eating habits. Teens often show apathy and become more defiant. Research shows that school-age children show a 40% decline in academic performance and experience mood changes when a parent deploys. After reading this, I asked my daughter’s teacher how she has been in class. She told me that she seemed “distracted,” and I realized her assignments were showing it. Her handwriting declined, and she was rushing and making mistakes on questions that she knew. This is a normal part of the process of deployment, and I find that it gets easier as time goes on. It helps to have a calendar to mark off the days and count down together, until daddy or mommy gets home.
Military spouses bear the burden of deployments for themselves and for their children. There are already significant risk factors for military families such as frequent moves, absence of the military parent and other stresses that impact military families. The parent that is left behind (usually the mother) carries the heavy load of increased responsibilities, isolation, fear, anxiety, loneliness and feelings of being overwhelmed by the situation. I always say strong spouses are what make the military work; because without the spouses they could not deploy or do the missions that they are required to do. The mental health of the parent left behind is also a significant factor on the resiliency and psychological impact on the children and teens in the home during a deployment.
According to Military.com, these are some of the signs of distress that children can express:
Preschool or Kindergarten Age Children
1. Clinging to people or favorite toy
2. Unexplained crying or tearfulness
3. Choosing adults over same-age playmates
4. Increased acts of violence toward people or things
5. Withdrawing and becoming very quiet
6. Sleeping difficulties and disturbances
7. Eating difficulties or change in eating patterns
8. Fear of new people or situations
School Age Children
1. A rise in complaints about headaches, stomachaches and illnesses
2. More irritable and crabby
3. Anger toward at-home parent
1. Any of the above
2. Acting out behaviors
3. Low self-esteem and self-criticism
4. Sudden or unusual school problems
5. Loss of interest in usual interests and hobbies
If you notice any of these reactions, stay calm. These behaviors are “normal” reactions from children during a deployment. If you feel overwhelmed, you can talk to a counselor or family member about the stress. If you feel that your child needs someone to talk to, set up an appointment with the school counselor or someone at the military base who can assist you, such as your Family Readiness Center. Remember that you are not alone. Children are resilient and military children are known to adapt extremely well to change, as they become adults. The experiences that they have will make them stronger and more aware about themselves and others. They learn to adapt from moving and experiencing family separations, which in turn creates a greater sense of self-esteem and purpose, as they grow older.