Deployment of our service members to a war zone results in an increased risk for significant mental health problems for the families left behind. Youngsters may experience feelings of sadness, anger or anxiety and manifest those reactions in a variety of ways depending upon their ages. However, such problems are not inevitable. Here are some strategies used by families to ease the stress of coping with an absent parent.
- Maintain as normal a routine as possible. The absence of a mom or dad can have a dramatic impact on family life for both the kids and spouses. There are a myriad of practical issues to resolve, such as getting kids to various activities and maintaining the family household. There can also be sadness because of the loss of attention, affection, and support. In spite of such problems, successful families try to keep to their customary routines and expectations. This also means not making excuses for the kids’ misbehavior by misattributing all problems as due to an absent parent.
- Have lots of conversations. This is a time when it is particularly important to stay emotionally connected with your children. Don’t be reluctant to express your own sadness or fears about an absent spouse. A genuine expression of feelings by a parent gives your children permission to express their own doubts, anger, or anxiety about their parent being away. Listen carefully and attentively. Avoid the temptation to jump in and offer either corrections or a quick solution to a child’s feelings. At the end of the conversation, thank your child for being open about their feelings.
- Stay connected with the deployed parent. I’ve spoken to lots of military families who report that technology is both a blessing and a burden. It’s relatively easy to speak to and see an absent parent but that can also lead to hypervigilance and increased anxiety. Parents have to figure out what works best for them and their children. Some parents place limits on media coverage of the war. Other parents, particularly of older children, find such restrictions more harmful than helpful.
- Be patriotic. We live in a world where bad people want to harm us. Our military are dedicated to protecting us, but do so at a risk to themselves. Talk about this with your children, but be cautious. This can be a tricky. You don’t want to increase their anxieties, but you need to communicate why their mom or dad is gone and the importance of sacrifice in our lives.
- Seek resources. Get a copy of the excellent article by Drs. Siegel and Davis in the June, 2013 issue of Pediatrics for an excellent summary of issues and resources available for families.