Military Families: Helping Kids Cope

How to help children of military families cope.
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In time of war, there's great uncertainty. And for military families, there's added stress when a parent is sent overseas. The long separation from a loved one and concern for his or her safety can take its toll, especially on children.

While adults can talk about their feelings and find support among peers, children, especially young ones, often have a tougher time. They may not understand why a parent is leaving and blame themselves for the separation. They might also be afraid to talk about what's on their mind. Depending on their age, maturity, relationship with the deployed parent, and how the remaining parent handles the situation, some children act out, while others withdraw. Behavioral changes may include sleep disturbances, bed-wetting, falling behind in school, and aggressiveness.

It's vital for a parent to talk openly with a child about her fears, emotions, and beliefs," says Thomas Hardaway, M.D., chief of behavioral medicine at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX. When answering questions, Dr. Hardaway, who has counseled military families for the past 29 years, advises parents to give age-appropriate information that the child can handle. (See "Easing Kids'Concerns") He offers these additional suggestions to help your child cope:

  • Strive for normalcy. Maintain family routines related to bedtimes, morning rituals, clean-up, and homework. Also continue family traditions, such as movie night or visits to Grandma's house.
  • Involve your child's school and teacher. Let them know that the child's parent is away and to be on the lookout for possible signs of vulnerability and stress.
  • Listen carefully to your child's questions and concerns, without dismissing her worries. You can even respond with a question of your own ("What have you heard about this?") to find out what prompted her to raise the issue. Then you can address the real cause of her fears. You can also reassure her that other servicemen and women are looking out for Mom or Dad while she or he is overseas.
  • Encourage your child to express himself through creative outlets, such as drawing, coloring, building with blocks, or playing dress-up.
  • Entrust your child with a responsibility. The task can be as simple as carrying placemats to the dinner table or putting away socks in drawers. This says to a child that she is important to the family.
  • Have reminders of the absent parent in the home. For example, record your spouse reading your child's favorite bedtime story and play it from time to time. When a child swaps a keepsake with the deployed parent, it gives him something to focus on while waiting for the parent's return.
  • Keep the deployed parent informed and involved in family activities. Help your child stay in touch by sending letters, e-mails, report cards, school pictures, and artwork.

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