Preschoolers take cues from you during deployments
May 3, 2012
Young children still learning the spoken language have little problem interpreting their parents' deployment-related stress.
"Kids are extremely sensitive to us," said Monica Lawson, licensed clinical social worker with William Beaumont Army Medical Center's child and adolescent psychiatry services on Fort Bliss.
In the last decade, more than two million military children have had a deployed parent.
Within that time, numerous studies have highlighted the challenges military children face with deployment stressors. From tantrums and tears to smiles and warm embraces, the experiences can and do affect an entire family unit -- especially the youngest members.
"All children, but especially military children, are incredibly resilient," Lawson said.
The Department of Defense recognizes April as the Month of the Military Child -- established to underscore the important role children play in the Armed Forces community.
A life of constant relocations and a reality of high-tempo deployments contribute to a growing movement for resilient military children. Resilient behavior can be nurtured by caring adults especially parents starting with open communication.
And even without words parents and young children are constantly communicating about stress.
When deployments and redeployments loom for parents of children ages 5 and younger, remember these tips.
Don't take it personally.
"Kids will be kids. When children are toddlers and preschoolers, they only have two to three years of experience. You can only expect them to respond with the experience they have," Lawson said.
In comparison, parents can have 20-plus years in dealing with emotions. Recognizing that a child's reaction and behavior is not necessarily a reflection on the parent is important.
However, it could be a reflection "of" the parent. Recent studies -- including the 2002 Journal for Pediatric Nursing article "Helping children cope with separation during war" -- have shown that infants and toddlers are particularly sensitive to caregiver distress. If the parent at home is emotional, unhappy or anxious, a child can mimic those same traits.
"Be sure to take care yourself," Lawson said of spouses or caregivers of military children. "Plan for supporting your children but also plan to nurture yourself for everyone's sake."
Military spouses and caregivers should plan to do fun activities with friends, make it a point to get out of the house daily sometimes without the children and recognize when they may need to talk to someone about their concerns or emotions.
Know when to seek help, Lawson said. Crying daily for more than a few days, not getting dressed or not being able to get out of the house are symptoms of needing additional support.
Every child handles stress differently.
"Every child is different," Lawson said noting the factors of personal temperament, family home life and deployment-related activities all play a part in helping a child deal with the stresses of deployments and redeployments.
Prior to deployments, Lawson said that preschoolers often instigate fights and display attention-seeking behavior -- these are intended to prevent the parent from leaving.
"Reinforce that you love them no matter what and calmly with love provide consistent structure and limits," Lawson said.
During deployments, parents and caregivers can actively involve their children in art work projects, letter writing and even baking goodies to send to the service members deployed. This, said Lawson, reinforces a connection to the deployed parent.
Activities should also include deployed parent involvement such as routine Skype sessions, videos of parents interacting with their children and recordings of the parent reading a book or singing a song to the child.
Be patient and gentle.
An 18-month-old girl throws herself at her dad's kaki-colored boots and laces her arms around his desert fatigue-clad leg. She refuses to let go tossing her head back with occasional smiles to her father -- a redeployed Soldier just back from a tour in Afghanistan.
Displaying the signs of clingy behavior is a normal reaction, Lawson said. But so, too, are displays of anger, indifference and fear. The 2002 Journal of Pediatric Nursing article also notes that preschool-aged children may exhibit behaviors they had previously outgrown -- a regression to toddler antics.
"Avoid being overly reactive to bad behavior," Lawson said.
Given a few weeks and lots of love most children return to a positive new normal with the service member back in the role as parent, Lawson said.
"Often the oldest child has felt added responsibility when a parent is gone and telling that child 'thanks for all your help, but you can go back to being a kid again' doesn't usually go over well. It is most helpful for the non-deployed parent to continue with love and limits and allow the service member to ease back into his or her role," Lawson said.
Children can take weeks to adjust to the redeployment. To help with the transitions, families should stick to a routine.
"Routines give a child a sense of security," Lawson said.
Make changes during deployments, Lawson said, but keep the important family routines -- the bedtime rituals, the fun activities, etc.
Seek help for behavior that persists.
If behavior changes associated with deployments and redeployments persist, parents should seek help.
Parents can first visit their pediatricians who can give referrals to the child and adolescent psychiatry services on Fort Bliss.
Families can also contact Military and Family Life Consultants -- licensed providers who can help with normal transition issues -- at (915) 569-5064 / 5065.
Army Community Service offers new parent support classes, play groups and programs -- which provide parent networking opportunities for support systems -- through the Family Advocacy program. For more information, call (915) 568-1132.
For more information on child and adolescent psychiatry services call (915) 742-5137.
For more information and helpful tips on children and deployments, visit militaryonesource.com.