Since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, more than two million men and women have deployed to a combat zone. As a result of spending months, and if you consider the totality of the wars, what could be years for some, these individuals are faced with myriad adjustment issues upon return home.
If you work with service members and veterans the one sure thing you can count on is that many will be struggling with accepting changes that occurred in their children during their absence.
For some children, the change will be minor and largely unrelated to your client’s deployment. A good example is a two year-old who says “no” to just about everything. This response is unlikely to be because one of the parents has been absent. It is more likely a result of normal toddler development.
My point is that it is important to remind your clients that they need to maintain a realistic perspective about their child’s behavior and not everything that seems askew is related to the deployment.
It is also important for your client to keep in mind that how the child responds to the deployment is dependent in part on the child’s age. Take preschoolers for example. For these youngsters, being separated from a parent during a deployment can be very confusing for them. It may take them longer to warm-up to the returning parent.
Think about it. They remember the parent leaving, couldn’t fully grasp why they left, and now all of a sudden they are back. That would be confusing to anyone. Moreover, for those who have children around one year of age or younger, it is possible they do not even remember the parent. If this is the case, then it is important to let your client know that this is again about childhood development and nothing to do with the attachment process.
School age children are a little different. Your client may find that their six, eight, or 10 year-old is very clingy and desperately in need of attention. In these situations, most likely an adequate attachment developed between your client and their child prior to the separation.
What is possibly happening now is that their child is fearful that they will leave again and is showing them how important they are to them. This is a sign of a healthy child and parent relationship, which can be easily reset with some time and patience.
Teenagers, well, are just different all the way around. They may seem moody (more so than usual) or act as if they could care less that your client is home. Teenagers tend to be very loyal to the parent that stayed behind. They may reject the attempts of the returning parent to discipline and set boundaries. They may blame your client for everything that went wrong with the family while they were away. Obviously, this can be heartbreaking for a parent that already feels guilty about leaving.
The good news is that much of this behavior will lessen and disappear with time. However, there are things you can do to help your clients speed up the process.
Tips for Re-establishing Those Connections
Be the caretaker. Taking over the role of caretaker for a while will help build trust. If your client typically does not bathe, feed, dres, or tuck their child into bed at night, now is the time to start. Research has shown that providing direct care to a young child builds attachment relatively quickly.
Keep them close. Younger children need to know that your client is truly there and home to stay. For the first few weeks, instruct your client to keep them in their line of sight. Or better yet, make sure your client is in their line of sight. After time and consistency, they will learn that mommy or daddy is truly back.
Reassure them that you are here to stay. Kids at any age can worry about mom or dad leaving again. But for younger children, their sense of time is a little off. Young children have a hard time comprehending things far in the future, like a future deployment 12 months away. Instruct your client to let their child know that they are back and are not going anywhere anytime soon.
Listen to their complaints. Inform your clients that it would help to take their child’s complaints seriously. School-age children have a tendency to complain of physical problems even when the problems are more emotional. Sometimes a tummy-ache is a tummy-ache and other times it is not.
Ignore the negative behavior. One of the fastest ways to get a child of this age to stop acting out is to ignore the behavior. The more your client acknowledges it, the more the behavior will be reinforced. If the child is not in danger, let it go.
Recognize the positive behavior. Have your client do the exact opposite for positive behavior. When their child does something good, let them know it. The best way to make sure the behavior continues is to acknowledge it and be excited by it.
Be patient and understanding. Teach your client to take a deep breath when things do not go well. Help them understand that they should not take things personally. Remind them that no child is perfect. Reassure them that things will get better. Remind them what it was like for them to be a teenager.
Give them space. Ask you client to be trusting. Tell them not to crowd their teen. Give them enough space so that they can become their own person. Remember, they most likely had a significant growth spurt while your client was gone as far as independence goes.
Give them more responsibility. This goes along with the previous recommendation. These children have become more independent. Give them the added responsibility of watching their younger brother, cutting the grass, or making sure the house is locked and secured for the night.
*This article is based in part on a chapter in Dr. Moore’s book titled, “Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life After Deployment.”