Effects of Military Deployment on Children

Parental deployments can be especially tough on young children.
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Studies estimate that 2 million U.S. children have been exposed to a wartime deployment of a military parent in the past 10 years. Some of those children experienced repeat deployments of a parent while other children experienced both parents being deployed.

Parental deployment can stir up a variety of emotions in children, ranging from fear and anxiety to anger and sadness. And it can lead to a variety of academic and behavioral challenges for children. So it’s important for parents, caregivers, and other adults to recognize how military deployments affect children.

Today’s Deployments

Since the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s, the military’s demographic has changed. At that time, only 15% of active-duty troops—who were nearly all men—were also parents. So the hardship on children was neither prominent nor researched.

As of 2014, though, according to the Department of Defense research, 42% of military personnel now have children. Consider children who were just beginning to remember events in their life as 9/11 occurred—these youth are now in their late teens and early 20s, and a country at war is all they’ve ever known.

Deployments average 3 to 15 months. And sometimes, they occur during peacetime. Most families do well after peacetime deployments since these deployments are usually safer and shorter in duration. Wartime deployments, however, can be the most stressful for families—especially children.

Phases

When most people think of deployment, they most likely imagine a tearful goodbye or a parent who has already left. But that’s only a small part of the overall picture.

There are actually three phases of deployment: pre-deployment, deployment, and post-deployment. All three phases can stir up a variety of challenges for families so it’s important to acknowledge how all three phases can impact children:

Pre-Deployment

During the days and months leading up to deployment, service members and their families may experience a variety of stressful events, such as dealing with legal issues, creating a will, or assigning a power of attorney. Children may feel confused or anxious about what will happen to them.

Deployment

When a parent is deployed, a child may experience a sense of emptiness, loss, and abandonment. Some children develop new coping skills and gain more independence during this time. The anticipation of a parent returning can be filled with worry and excitement.

Post-Deployment

Families often experience a “honeymoon phase” after reuniting. But shortly after, many begin to struggle to readjust to family life. Many things have likely changed during a deployed parent’s time away. Problems with adjustment can be especially problematic if the parent who was deployed develops post-traumatic stress disorder.

Impact

Every child will react differently to a parent’s deployment; however, age generally plays a role. It’s never too early for a child to react to the deployment. Research shows that even infants display signs of being affected by a parent’s absence. Here's a closer look at what to expect by age.

Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers

Young children don't understand deployment and are more likely to struggle with the changes in family dynamics. They may need frequent reassurance that they are loved, will be safe, and did not do anything to cause the parent's departure.

Studies show pre-schoolers with deployed parents reveal higher emotional reactivity, anxiousness, depression, somatic complaints, and withdrawal. They may also show separation anxiety from the parent who remains, start throwing temper tantrums—or increasing their severity—and change their eating or sleeping patterns.

School-Age Children

Studies show the at-home parent or caregiver's level of stress is the most significant predictor of a school-age child’s psychological well-being during a parent’s deployment. Researchers also discovered that children with parents who were younger, had been married for a shorter period of time, and were junior-enlisted rank were at a higher risk of psychosocial problems.

School-age children with a parent deployed were 2.5 times more likely to receive “high-risk” scores for emotional and behavioral problems when the Pediatric Symptom Checklist was used.

They were also more likely to experience sleep problems. When a parent is deployed for combat, the psychosocial effects are likely to persist after the deployed parent returns home.

Teens

A study that examined adolescents whose parents were deployed overseas, found that teens were likely to experience anxiety about the deployed parent’s well-being. Their academic performance was also more likely to decline. On the positive side, teens were more likely to exhibit increased responsibility and maturity.

Teens are more likely to experience emotional difficulties when their parent is deployed longer. The at-home parent or caregiver's mental health also makes a big difference. An at-home parent with positive coping skills is more likely to have a teen with fewer maladjustment issues related to deployment.

Other Caregivers

Being the at-home parent or the caregiver when a parent is deployed can be stressful. Not only might you have to pick up a lot of extra childrearing and household duties—but you're also likely to experience emotional turmoil related to having a deployed partner or family member.

There’s added pressure, too, since the attitude and behavior of the parent or caregiver who is at home can impact how a child reacts to a deployment.

A child quickly picks up on how people are feeling about their parent being away. If an at-home parent or caregiver is worried about the safety of the military member, the child will likely be worried as well. Therefore, self-care for grown-ups is of utmost importance during this time period.

How to Help Kids

Research shows it often takes families about 6 weeks to begin to develop new routines and a new sense of normalcy. Here are some tips to help your child adjust to a parent being deployed.

Make a Video or Recording

If you are able to create a recording before the military parent is deployed. Have them read a favorite bedtime story or share a message. Seeing or hearing the deployed parent’s voice may bring some comfort.

Talk About the Deployed Parent

Sometimes the at-home parent or caregiver fears talking about the deployed parent will be too hard on kids. But talking about the situation and the deployed parent can bring comfort. In fact, not saying anything can be confusing for kids.

Foster Communication

If phone calls are allowed—and kids aren’t likely to hear scary things during the call—facilitate conversations. You might also encourage your child to write letters and draw pictures for the deployed parent.

Limit Media Coverage

If the parent is in a dangerous military zone, news coverage will overwhelm younger children. If you allow older children to access the news, hold regular conversations about what they’re seeing and learning. Things they hear can create fear and uncertainty, so it is important to talk through what they are seeing and hearing.

Talk About War

Find out what the child knows about the military and conflict. Just make sure you hold conversations about war in a kid-friendly manner. Answer their questions honestly, but without sharing too much information or concepts they are are too young to understand.

Discuss Feelings

Check-in with your child regularly to talk about feelings. Make it clear that it’s OK to feel a variety of emotions, like sad, scared, and angry. Validate your child’s feelings and talk about healthy ways to cope with those emotions.

Maintain a sense of routine

It’s important for children to have structure. And a regular routine can help kids feel safe even when their lives are a little uncertain. Keep bedtimes the same and follow your usual family traditions or activities. These predictable things will bring them some comfort even while their parent is deployed.

Refrain From Discussing Your Stress in Front of Kids

Don’t burden kids with information about how difficult or scary it is to deal with deployments. Keep those conversations out of earshot from the kids and reserve these conversations for family and friends who can support you without worrying the children.

Create a Scrapbook

Encourage your child to put pictures, stories, and mementos into a scrapbook that can be shared when the deployed parent returns home. It can help your child stay active and positive. Plus, it can be fun for them to think of things they want to share when their parent returns.

Provide Plenty of One-On-One Time

Your child may need some extra attention while their parent is deployed. Set aside a little time each day to offer your undivided attention. And try to schedule longer opportunities to spend quality time together on weekends and during vacations.

Keep the Household Rules the Same

Continue to implement the same discipline strategies you use when the deployed parent is present. Enforce the rules and use the consequences that were in place prior to the deployment.

Access Resources

From summer camps for children with deployed parents to websites where children can connect with other children who are facing similar challenges, the military offers families a variety of resources. Access these resources for your family and connect with other military members who understand your circumstances.

Take care of yourself

Managing your own stress and taking care of your health will go a long way toward helping your child. If you are struggling to find healthy ways to deal with the deployment, talk to a healthcare provider or seek services from a mental health professional

When to Seek Professional Help

If you notice changes in your child’s mood or behavior that last for more than a couple of weeks, talk to your child’s pediatrician or contact a mental health professional. Or, if your family is struggling to adjust to the changes once the deployed parent returns home, seek help from a professional who understands the needs of military families.

A Word From Verywell

It’s not easy for anyone in the family—whether it’s a spouse, a child, or other family member—to deal with deployment. However, children are remarkably resilient and, with a little help, the whole family can adjust to the realities of life in the military.

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