By Michelle DeRamus, Ph.D.
It is no secret that the lives of military service members and their families differ greatly from civilian life in a variety of ways. For kids – often deemed military “brats” – the life changes and transitions that come every couple of years when the parent is assigned to PCS – move to a new post or duty station – may be extremely difficult or challenging. Kids are not as emotionally mature as adults and may experience additional difficulties as a result of the unique sets of circumstances that come with the military lifestyle.
As a licensed child psychologist in Phenix City, I work with many kids and families, both those who are in the military and those who are not. From my experience working with all children over the course of my career, and from talking with military family members in the area, I have identified a list of common questions or concerns that families may have due to the unique nature of the military lifestyle. This not a comprehensive list, but rather a guideline for some steps that military families may take to ease the effects that a transient lifestyle may have on their children. Of course, each individual child and circumstance is different, so please do not hesitate to consult a physician or child psychologist if you believe that your child is experiencing physical or emotional difficulties.
Last week, we looked at coping with and embracing PCS (permanent change of duty station) and helping kids to understand training and deployments when a military service parent may be absent from the home. You can find that blog here.
In Part 2, we will address “reacclimation” after a lengthy absence, managing expectations and helping kids to understand and cope with the inevitable broken promises that can arise due to an abrupt change in the military service schedule.
The service member is coming home after months away! Everyone is thrilled. The kiddos make a banner and pick out special outfits to meet Mommy or Daddy at the airport. BUT then, (s)he is home, and the routine is again disrupted. While this is certainly an exciting time for everyone, one of the best ways to help everyone in the family transition is to keep expectations realistic. While I don’t want to be a “Debbie Downer,” the reality is that the return of a service member and the weeks and months that follow a long period of absence often do not follow the picture-perfect reunification plan that was expected. Everyone in the family has changed during the time of separation – kids have gotten older, the parent at home has adjusted to being more independent, and the service member has sometimes experienced very challenging situations that can affect his or her whole outlook on life, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual changes. Sometimes it seems as if family members no longer know one another, and it can feel as if you’re learning to live with a whole new person.
Expect changes and be prepared to take time to adjust to one another. Be patient with each other. Some children react to a parent’s absence by wanting to tell them everything that has happened within the first few hours of their return, and the parent may not be ready for such an overwhelming greeting. On the other hand, some children cope with the separation by keeping the period of absence separate, not wanting to talk at all about what happened during the parent’s time away. While this can seem hurtful to some parents, it can be helpful to focus on the present and future for these children. Ultimately, however a child responds to the reacclimation process, remember that kids are going to take their cues from their parents. If parents model patience and appropriate coping, children will be more likely to follow suit.
4. Minimizing Resentment over Broken Promises/Missed Occasions
In the military, there is rarely a true routine. You must be prepared for everything. Dad missing dinner may be common. Moms get called in for all hours of the day and night. It can be hard to make plans for vacations. The service member most likely will miss at least some events that are special to your child, such as the dance recital, school play or ball game. This could be a routine event or a major event, such as the state playoffs, prom or graduation. It can be tough to prevent resentment in families where inconsistency is the norm. The most important way to minimize resentment is to keep the lines of communication open between everyone in the family. Acknowledge feelings of disappointment and anger rather than telling children they are wrong for feeling a certain way. And from the other end, it is important for parents to tell children they are also disappointed, sad, and sometimes angry that they have to miss family events. When parents are honest with kids about their own feelings, it gives you an opportunity (again!) to model good coping skills and problem solving. Another way to prevent resentment is to be sure to spend some one-on-one time with each child as well as whole-family time when work allows. Find ways to connect with children around their interests. Finally, be sure to show and tell children you love them. While this may seem obvious, in too many families, parents assume their kids know they love them or are proud of them. But it is extremely important for kids to hear parents say it out loud. Supplement words with actions, too. Find ways to show your children you love them, even if you can’t be with them as often as you’d like.
5. None of these tips are working. How Can I Help my Child?
The tips above can go a long way for helping children cope with the stressors of being part of a military family. But what do you do if these tips don’t work? What if your child isn’t adjusting to the changes despite preparation? What if family relationships remain strained despite attempts at open communication? What if the stress becomes so overwhelming that your child begins to show extreme behavior problems, grades drop and don’t come back up, or significant signs of anxiety or depression appear? In addition, the strategies outlined above are not always sufficient if you have a child with special needs. Sometimes families need some outside help. Some children are predisposed to having poor coping skills, perhaps if anxiety or depression runs in the family. The stress of a move or a deployment can reveal underlying challenges that had gone unnoticed before. If it seems like your child is not adjusting as well as he or she has in the past, or if the challenges of a transition linger beyond a few weeks or months, it may be time to seek help. The military offers some support to families who need help. The Army Community Service Center, Family Counseling Center, and your own unit’s Family Readiness Group (FRG) are great places to start when looking for external resources to help your child. Tricare also covers mental health services for children of military families. A therapist can offer individual or family therapy services to help children and families cope more effectively with the challenges of military life. If you are interested in therapy services, you can contact Tricare directly for a list of providers in your area, or you can ask your child’s pediatrician for referrals.
At the end of the day, while kids may be part of a military family, keep in mind that they’re still kids. Children are resilient and often stronger than we expect. As noted above, most children will take cues from their parents about how to handle situations. So be sure that you model for your kids not a lack of emotion, but an appropriate way to cope with all the emotions — both positive and negative — that go along with life in the military. Try not to let the hard parts about military life define your family. There are so many exciting and positive things about being a military family, too. Emphasize the strong values, patriotism, sense of community, and commitment that come from being a military family. Reminding each other of these positive qualities of being a military family can help you remain strong in the face of whatever challenges await.
Dr. DeRamus is a child psychologist with Preferred Medical Group and works at the Phenix City Children’s clinic. She specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and provides diagnostic testing and therapy services for developmental delays, learning problems and ADHD. She also works with anger, anxiety, depression, family problems and peer relationships. She accepts Tricare Prime and Standard.