Children in National Guard Families

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Children in National Guard families face unique challenges. When a parent is deployed, children must adapt to a new family dynamic, learn how to deal with the absence, and manage stress.

“As the war in Iraq goes on, it’s certainly taking its toll on families—especially young kids. News radio 850 KOA’s Dan Dillard spent some time with a couple of families this week to hear their stories, and Dan joins us live with more on that.”

“Unless you’re in that situation, you quickly learn it’s hard to imagine. Thirteen-year-old Caleb Han, tears in his eyes, hasn’t seen his dad in eleven months. Do you get used to it?”

“Kind of, after a while. I still miss him a lot. I just talked to him today, but not very often—just about maybe every three or four days.”

“Their mother, Chandra Han, says since her husband left for Iraq, the boys have gotten to hang out with other military kids, and she herself has jumped right into a number of support groups. But still, it can definitely be a struggle at home to maintain some sort of normalcy.”

“Yeah, it has been missing. You kind of get into a new normalcy, I think, just cause it has been that long that they’ve been gone. So we get into new routines, and just when we talk to them, when we email.”

Children in Guard families face challenges non-military kids do not.

Children in military families experience emotional and behavioral difficulties at rates higher than the national average. Over one-third of all school-age military children exhibit signs of anxiety, worrying, and more frequent crying than their peers.

Children in National Guard families face more specific challenges. Guard and Reserve families might never live near a military installation and will, instead, look within their community for educational services, friendship, and support. Children may feel isolated because their peers aren’t necessarily experiencing the same thing. The deployment of a parent is a stressful event for both the child and his/her family. Children whose caregiver is managing the stress well will likely have a better outcome than children whose caregiver is struggling emotionally with the family changes. Some children may have experienced lengthy deployments and multiple deployments, increasing their risk for emotional problems.

Youth face a variety of challenges over the course of the deployment cycle.

During the pre-deployment stage, children may experience feelings of shock, dread, and disbelief. Their deploying parent may be busy with additional training and may not be able to spend the necessary transition time with their child. The child may feel ignored or confused. Young children may mistakenly believe they have done something wrong to push the parent away. Before deployment, older youth may become emotionally withdrawn, apathetic, or exhibit regressive behavior. They may pretend they don’t care that the parent is deploying.

Early in deployment, a child can be overwhelmed, sad, anxious, and clingy, manifesting increased somatic complaints (including stomachaches or headaches) or developing aggressive behavior. Overall, children are likely to experience a loss of stability brought on by the sudden disruption of routines. This feeling may extend to other areas of life; youth may feel that if this sudden change can occur, so can others. They may feel overwhelmed or out of control. Often, deployment is marked by a lack of news and a great distance between a parent and child.

Children’s individual reactions to a deployment can vary greatly. Previous life experiences or experiences with previous deployments can affect their reaction to a current deployment. Reactions will also vary depending on the child’s age, gender, personality, and relationship with his or her caregiver—as well as the reaction and behavior of those at home.

Post-deployment, a family will likely experience initial feelings of euphoria and joy—followed by challenges and readjustments, with family members taking on new roles. The family will need to make many adjustments to reach a “new normal.” Everyone in the family has likely changed, and finding a new sense of stability can be—for some—the most stressful part of the deployment cycle.

School-age children often have acute, immediate responses to stress.

Immediately following a stressful life event such as a parent’s deployment, children may express acute reactions within the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours. In a school setting, these reactions can include:

  • Not completing school assignments
  • Crying and intense sadness
  • Appearing depressed, withdrawn, or non-communicative
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Expressing feelings in “dark” drawings or writings
  • Separation anxiety and wanting to stay home from school

For most youth, these acute feelings or reactions will subside in time. For some, however, feelings remain strong and can disrupt their lives. If symptoms persist after two to four weeks, a teacher should notify the parent and refer the student to a school counselor. If symptoms become more serious, the counselor can contact the parent and offer a referral to a school psychologist or social worker.

The following symptoms indicate a more serious problem and require a response:

  • Significant amount of weight loss/gain
  • Disregard of personal hygiene and personal appearance
  • Evidence of a possible drug or alcohol problem
  • Intentionally hurting or cutting self, or threatening to hurt others

Children vary greatly in how they express their feelings.

It’s important to remember that youth experience stress differently and express it in myriad ways. Stressful reactions can vary by age, maturity, gender, parent-child relationships, and coping skills of the caregiver. Still, according to the U.S. Department of Education research, prolonged stress alters brain chemistry and function, causing students to have difficulty with concentration, memory, behavior, and control of emotions. Proper and timely interventions can help students reach better, healthier outcomes in the face of stressful life events.

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