Home again: children and reintegration

Editor’s Note: This is the third and
final installment in a three-part series addressing how reintegration
affects families in the military.

Children often experience a myriad of emotions when their mothers or fathers return from a deployment.

Teens can have a hard time adjusting to changes in house rules. Young
children can be hurt or confused by changes in their returned parents.

“…the kids are very excited,” said Dr. (Lt. Col.) Eric Leong, chief of
behavioral health for the Stuttgart Army Health Clinic. “[Then], they
wonder why [Mom or] Dad is so distant.”

How children handle their reactions during this time depends on the support they receive from both parents.

It takes time

The redeployed mother or father often needs time to adapt to having children again, Leong said.

“Most service members, when they come back, can only take the family in
doses,” Leong said. “This doesn’t mean that the service member does not
love them; it just means that they have a low tolerance for things they
aren’t used to.”

The “U.S. Army Deployment Cycle Readiness: Soldier’s and Family
Member’s Handbook” advises both parents to prepare children for the
challenges they may face, including “changes in routine,
responsibilities, roles, parent-Soldier relationship, emotional
reactions and physical appearance … .”

Young children

Young children expect to play with their returned mother or father
right away. But a redeployed service member might react violently or
speak sharply to their child, if taken by surprise, Leong said.

“They developed combat reflexes,” he said. “You don’t think — you just ‘do.’ You don’t mean to be mean or anything.”

Even sudden noises or movements can put them on guard.

This jumpy or irritated behavior can be especially hard on children who fear that their returned parent will leave again.

Air Force Senior Master Sgt. William Muldoon, an intelligence support
noncommissioned officer for U.S. European Command, who deploys for four
to six months at a time, finds that when he comes home, his 7-year-old
son doesn’t want to separate from him.

“When I come back, he’s almost clingy,” Muldoon said.

Even when children are not clingy, they still seek reassurance from their returned parents in a variety of ways.

For example, some children run and hide when a parent returns, said
Chaplain (Col.) Randall Dolinger, U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart command

“They will hide because they want Dad or Mom to come find them, because
that means they care,” he said. “The child fears rejection. [They
think] ‘They’ve been gone all this time — if they really loved me, then
would they be gone?’”

Staff Sgt. Greg Hatfield returned from a 12-month deployment to
Afghanistan with the 554th Military Police Company in May, and his
7-year-old daughter, Brianna, still needs him to tell her that he loves
her and didn’t want to leave her.

“She’s got fear when I go away for a short period,” Hatfield said.
“Anytime Daddy goes to training, it’s ‘Is Daddy coming back?’ She has a
real hard time, and she’s clinging to my leg.

“She was very angry at times while I was deployed,” he went on. “I missed events, and she’d tell me how hurt she was.”

To reassure his daughter, Hatfield takes her on father-daughter outings.

“She’s got a lot of questions: ‘Who did you see?,’ ‘What are the bad
guys like?,” he said. He tries to answer all of the questions, while
keeping his answers age-appropriate.


Unlike their younger counterparts, teenagers are old enough to
understand why their deployed parent had to leave, and the danger they
were in down range.

In order to protect themselves from feeling fear and pain, they
sometimes try to mentally separate from the parent that deploys, then
act as if they don’t care when he or she returns, Dolinger said.

“It’s especially rough in the adolescent years,” said Dolinger,
remembering when his sons were teens during one of his deployments. 
“Older children are more aware of the real threat that’s out there,
more aware of how they feel.

 “If you really love something and you can’t have it, you start telling
yourself that you don’t want it,” he continued. “It’s a way they kind
of mask the pain.”

However, Dolinger warned parents not to be fooled by a teen’s tough exterior.

“Don’t mistake: teenagers look like they don’t care, but deep down,
they really do,” he said. “You may think they really don’t appreciate
all you do, but give it some time …. they’ll come around. Don’t try to
rush it.”


Another challenge, for teens especially, arises when a redeployed parent changes the house rules.

Fernanda Hernandez, 15, says it has been tough getting used to the way
her father likes to run things at home since he returned from a year in
Afghanistan with the 554th Military Police Company in May.

“He was a little more strict than my mom,” Hernandez said. For example,
while her mother usually let her go to sleepovers, her father is less
inclined to say yes.

“It was hard – you’re not used to it anymore,” she added.

It was also hard on her father, Sgt. Humberto Hernandez, who left an
environment where he gave the orders to return to one in which his wife
made the decisions.

“Being in that area where you didn’t deal with family — it’s a
different atmosphere. The way you talk to people is totally different
than the way you talk to family,” he said.  “It was hard to adapt to
family because their set of rules … were new rules I never have seen

After a few months, Sgt. Hernandez started letting his wife, Maria,
make those decisions again, but with input from him. He appreciated
that his family gave him time to adjust and let him know when they
thought he was being too tough.

“Communication is key,” he said.

The Hernandez family’s decision to agree on house rules is a great way
to help children readjust to their other parent at home, according to
the Army Deployment Cycle Readiness Handbook. It recommends that
parents “keep discipline routine and rules as consistent as possible.”

Now, the Hernandez children ask both their mother and father for permission to do things.

“They agree — they say what’s OK, what’s not OK,” Fernanda Hernandez said.

And, while there are fewer sleepovers, she says it’s a small price to pay for being able to have her dad around.

“It makes me happy [that] I can talk to him,” she said. “It’s a feeling of home.”


Showing interest in a child’s life, as Sgt. Hernandez does through
“girl talk” with his daughter, is the best way for redeployed parents
to build new connections with their children, according to Dolinger.

“Learn to spend time with children on their terms,” he said. “They’d
rather you come to a soccer game than tell them everything you did last

“What kids want is for you to get excited about what they’re doing.”

Most service members,

when they come back,

can only take the family in doses.

This doesn’t mean that the service

member does not love them …

Dr. (Lt. Col). Eric Leong
Chief of Behavioral Health
Stuttgart Army Health Clinic