The long, dark tunnel: children and deployment

To military families, a deployment can seem like a long, dark tunnel. The pain of loneliness and the stresses of managing without a spouse and parent force these families to deal with issues that their civilian counterparts may never have to face.

To some military children, the tunnel is endless: they don’t always understand why a parent has to leave, and fear they will not return.

However, medical experts agree that both children and parents can make it through, as long as they have someone to walk beside them.

“The cases that worry me most are when you have a parent or family that is so isolated or alone — they fall apart,” said Dr. Eric N. Leong, chief of behavioral health for the Stuttgart Army Health Clinic.

According to an article from Medical News Today in August, citing a study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, “Military family and community supports help mitigate family stress during periods of deployment.”

The 2009 study tested the mental health of both children and at-home parents dealing with deployments. The results are disturbing: “One-third of children with a parent deployed in the Global War on Terror are at high risk for psychosocial problems,” it stated.

Some of these problems include poor performance at school and outbursts of anger, Leong added. “During the first deployment, a lot of kids will react in a way that’s unexpected because they’re angry, or they’re sad, and they’re [not sure] what to do with their feelings. They’ll take it out more on parents who are left behind.”

This can start a vicious cycle. In fact, “The stress of the at-home parent is the main factor affecting children’s risk,” the article from Medical News Today continued.
To stay mentally healthy, both parent and child need to talk to someone about the emotions they are experiencing.

Joquez Addison, 9, talks about missing his father, who deployed with the 554th Military Police Company to Afghanistan for one year, with his mom.  “I usually cry, then my mom says ‘It will be alright,’ then I’ll go outside,” he said. “That makes my mind stop worrying about it.”

He also attends Mini Troopers, an Army Community Service program that meets each month at Patch Elementary School, with his brother, Jovanni, 7.

In the Mini Troopers program, children of deployed parents meet to talk and participate in activities with Military Family Life Consultants, who are licensed clinical counselors.

Michael Hayes, 10, is another Mini Trooper whose father deployed with the 554th. “Kids talk about how they feel,” he said. “It helped.”

Service members and their families can also access MFLCs at any time on a confidential basis.

The at-home parent should also take steps to ensure their own mental health, Leong added, such as joining a Family Readiness Group or spiritual organization, and planning some “me” time.

It’s also important to make emergency plans together in case of an unexpected crisis, he added, and set up regular communication with the deployed parent.

Since her father deployed with the 554th MP Company, Pam Hernandez, 19, communicates with him using a Web camera. She also sends him videos of herself, and he sends pictures back. “It’s a little bit easier to handle because I get to talk to him, and I get to see him,” she said. “I feel so proud of him. That keeps me calm.”
In addition, Leong said, the at-home spouse should make sure his or her children understand that the deployment is not anyone’s fault. “Make it clear that, as a family, you’re going through a hard time,” Leong said. “Tell them, ‘We’re all in this together.’

“Children often can step up and help out,” he added. “In helping out, children often feel empowered and more in control.”

This is especially helpful for very young children, who often believe their parents have the ability to say “no” to deploying, Leong said.

Elementary- and middle school-aged children can become fearful. “They tend to get really scared,” Leong said. “They don’t want their parents to die.”

Sometimes children at this age will refuse to talk to their deployed parent on the phone because it is too painful for them.

Even infants are affected by deployment. “They don’t have a chance to bond with the parent [deploying],” Leong said.

When that parent returns, it isimportant to allow the young child to adjust to the change since the returning parent will be essentially a stranger. Given enough time and patience, the child will rebond to the returning parent.

As children grow older, they often find it helpful to focus on school and their daily activities, said Randy Zamerinsky-Lussier, an Army Substance Abuse Counseling Service counselor.  “[Think], what do you need to do to keep everything normal, as if the parent was still here?”

Since her father deployed, Hernandez has taken up salsa dancing. “I think it’s best to keep busy,” she said.

No matter the age, it is vital that the parent at home take care of themselves in order to help their children cope, Leong said. Parents who cannot deal with the stress of deployment in a healthy way sometimes resort to overspending, drugs, alcohol or affairs. “I wish I could say it doesn’t happen, but it does happen,” he added. “That affects the family in a huge way.”

Families who build networks of support through community programs, friendship and open communication have better chances of staying healthy.

“You have to make sure that you take care of yourself,” Leong said. “Be connected to other people — people who understand, and people who are there to support you.”