Typical Children's Behavior in Response to Deployment

Think of general stress reactions you've experienced or perhaps witnessed in others, for example headaches, queasy stomachs, tension in your back and neck, the desire to sleep all the time, becoming forgetful, moodiness, or constantly feeling 'on edge'. As we cope with change many of us experience a brief sense of feeling "off balance." Kids of all ages have these same feelings as they react to the change of a parent's deployment. However, they often don't have the words to tell us or the ability to figure out what's really happening. Think of yourself as a detective. If you're feeling frustrated with your child or teenager take a step back and try to figure out what their behavior is really trying to say.

  • Kids regress. Regression will take place in response to any big change in a child's life. Children revert to "old" behaviors that they had outgrown. Behaviors might include infants' sleep schedule getting back off track, toddlers insisting that you don't leave their sight, preschoolers having toileting accidents again, school-age kids reverting back to whining or teenagers wanting more time with you. These actions are all in response to stress.
  • The ability for children to regulate or control their emotions temporarily changes. Children may lose their ability to keep their cool and cope with problems that they've easily handled before. They might have emotional meltdowns to minor incidents or be more moody and irritable for a short time.
  • Physical reactions often occur. As children adjust to their parent's absence they may often complain of headaches or stomachaches. They might want to sleep more than normal or be unable to sleep well. They may experience appetite loss and decreased amounts of energy. Remember all these physical reactions are real, your kids aren't "faking it." They are relying on you to use your detective skills to figure out the feelings and worries that are behind these behaviors.

What can you expect from your infant and toddler (ages 0 - 2)?

A quick summary of this information can also be found at Infants and Toddlers Summary.

Growth and changes within the first year of an infant's life is rapid and more important now than at any other period of their lives. As they grow your child will gain the ability to control and regulate their bodies, express emotions, and learn how to communicate their own needs or wants. Toddlers begin to develop motor coordination skills along with their growing languages skills — often understanding more words than they can communicate. They display a wider range of emotions and can easily become frustrated and throw tantrums. Children at this age are developing an active imagination and showing an interest in other children but will have a limited sense of what is real and not real.

  • Before Deployment

    Remember, infants and toddlers are only able to show you how they feel as they respond to the stresses and strains they sense around them. Infants are able to pick up on your stress and will communicate their "worry" by crying of being fussy. They may not eat or sleep as well. Toddlers are slightly more aware of their surroundings and the changes taking place, but again have only a limited ability to understand or communicate their distress. As you prepare to leave for a deployment toddlers will become more attached and fussy as they react to the heightened emotions they sense. They will not be able to comprehend that you will be leaving in the future while you are still home.

  • During Deployment

    Of all ages, babies react most directly to their immediate environment. So the calmer, more loving and attentive the at-home caregiver, the better adjustment an infant will make to a parent deploying. However, even young infants can recognize and show preference for their primary caregivers. Infants will notice a change in who is around and may become fussy or not eat well as they adjust to a parent's absence. Toddlers on the other hand will become confused by the absence of a parent and have a limited ability to understand the concept of "coming home." Remember, toddlers will show their confusion by being more irritable, aggressive, and by throwing temper tantrums. Toddlers will be hesitant to separate from you, their sleeping and eating patterns may change and they can briefly return to old behaviors (i.e., thumb sucking, wanting to be in your lap). Since toddlers also tend to mimic their caregivers, be aware that they will copy the behaviors and emotions they see from their at-home parent concerning the deployment.

  • After Deployment

    Welcoming home a parent that a child hasn't had the chance to really "know" can be difficult. In your absence, your child will attach to their primary caregiver and will need time (and your patience) to get to know you again. Some physical reactions that you can expect to encounter while reintegrating with your family can be any of the following: fussing, crying, change in sleeping and eating patterns, and favoring the parent (or caregiver) that cared for them while you were gone. Additionally, toddlers will act out their emotions by throwing temper tantrums and may return to old behaviors while they adjust to your return. Remember, patience is the key.

Red Flags for Infants and Toddlers

Babies and toddlers will need time to adjust to the change of a parent leaving and the change of a parent's return. Within a short time, most children will be able to acclimate to their circumstances. However, if you are worried or it appears things are not returning to "normal" for your child, consider seeking advice from a trusted friend or your pediatrician. The following are behaviors that might be "red flags" indicating a need for help:

  • Extensive crying — being unable to be soothed or calmed
  • Considerable changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • For toddlers, a high level of aggression (i.e. hurting toys, pets, other children, caregivers, themselves)
  • Significant developmental delays or losing skills they had previously mastered

What can you expect from your preschooler (ages 3 - 5)?

A quick summary of this information can also be found at Preschool Children Summary.

Preschoolers are naturally very active and at times it may seem like they are moving all the time! During this phase of their life preschoolers develop their gross motor skills (i.e., running, skipping, jumping) and begin to develop some fine motor skills (holding, zipping, cutting). Their cognitive skills are quickly developing. Preschoolers often talk a lot, asking questions and learning rhymes and verses to songs. Preschoolers are curious and constantly want to learn about how things work. They have a growing imagination and continue to be confused about what is real versus imaginary. They have little sense of how time works and won't understand the meaning of "3 months."

  • Before Deployment

    Preschoolers will still have difficulty comprehending that a parent is leaving while the parent is "right here." Similar to younger ages, preschoolers will pick up on the stress level at home and respond with confusion or frustration. Older kids in this age range will begin to understand the impending departure and react with sadness, worry and possibly blame themselves for the parent leaving. While it's important to talk to preschoolers about the impending deployment, remember that kids this age will relate any information they hear directly to themselves. If you talk about "fighting bad guys over there," a preschooler might worry that "bad guys" will come to their house. Consider explaining your departure only in positive terms, such as training other soldiers or helping people.

  • During Deployment

    Children at this age will certainly miss and be saddened by their parent's absence. However, they won't fully understand why the parent left and will wonder what they did wrong. They may also worry the at-home caregiver will leave them too, and show reluctance to separate or be far from them. Changes to their daily routines can cause children at this age to easily get "off balance". If play schedules, meal times or bath times change, preschoolers will notice. They will show their confusion by having more potty accidents, bedwetting or having a loss in appetite. They may also have angry outbursts, temper tantrums and be more physically aggressive. You may also notice that your preschooler will act out scary events while playing. It's important to remember that this play is how your child makes sense of their world.

  • After Deployment

    Homecoming for preschoolers is a happy and exciting time although it can still be a little confusing to them. You'll notice your child will constantly want your attention and will talk excessively. They may show anger at you for your absence. Preschoolers will act out to get your attention and you may see an increase in temper tantrums and frustration while they cope with the changes and your return. They will have little understanding of sharing you with their siblings or your significant other.

Red Flags for Preschoolers

As with toddlers, preschoolers need time to adjust to the changes around deployment. They have strong emotions and are just beginning to learn how to handle their feelings. You are likely to see some extreme behaviors from this age group as they try to cope with new routines due to their parent's departure and then return. If you are worried about their reactions or they still haven't settled down after a few months, consider seeking advice from trusted adults or your pediatrician. Behaviors of concern might include the following:

  • Significant and prolonged change in child's clinginess or ability to calm down
  • Considerable changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • High levels of aggression (i.e. hurting toys, pets, other children, caregivers, themselves)
  • Significant developmental delays or losing skills your child had previously mastered

What can you expect from your school-age (6 - 12 year-old) child?

A quick summary of this information can also be found at School-Age Children Summary.

Developmentally, kids change significantly between the ages of 6 and 12. During elementary school, children are increasing their reasoning ability and logical thinking. However, they still tend to be quite "black or white" in their thinking. Rules are very important to them — something is either "right" or "wrong." Their ability to pay attention is increasing, as well as their awareness of their own skills and abilities. They're still highly active, with play time being critical for both developing motor skills and practicing social behavior. As they progress through these years, kids move away from fantasy play and toward more team sports and organized play. With their improving verbal skills, kids of this age will increasingly be able to express their emotions verbally rather than through physical means or temper tantrums. In general, they are better able to handle their emotions and show some effective coping skills.

  • Before Deployment

    School-age children will react to the news of the deployment in various ways, but will often be saddened, worried and possibly angry with you for leaving. Especially at younger ages, they may feel responsible and believe that they are at fault for your leaving. Be aware that while you have made the effort to reassure your children they are not responsible for your absence some kids will continue to blame themselves or feel guilt. Children of this age are able to understand ideas like "national good" and "good versus bad." Communicating about your deployment in such terms will make your child take pride in their parent's military service and understand the meaning of the mission.

  • During Deployment

    Kids will feel a sense of loss and emptiness with your departure. Compounding their sadness will be worry — worry about your safety and ultimate return, worry the at home parent will leave too, and worry about how the at-home caregiver will cope with everything on their own. Older school age children will want to take on new responsibilities around the house to help out. In addition, they are also more aware of the deployed parent missing key events or milestones, for example soccer games, birthdays, holidays, etc., and may respond with anger and resentment about your absence. Younger school age children may whine or act out more for attention. Many kids in this age range tend to develop physical complaints, such as headaches or stomachaches, in response to the changes and sense of loss. Remember that these physical symptoms are real, even if they are related to emotions and feelings. Mood changes, such as angry outbursts followed quickly by sad or clingy behavior, are not uncommon for this age. As you know, during this age, school achievement is important and some children may struggle with their grades as they seek to find a balance between the changes in their routines and the emotions they feel by your absence.

  • After Deployment

    With their parent's return, school age children are often excited and happy. They easily feel pride in their parent's service and will want to tell you everything they did while you were gone. The strong emotions that surround a parent's homecoming can also lead to confusion and anger for this age group. They might show some reluctance in reconnecting with you for fear of having to watch you leave again and may act out their anger with you for leaving. Other behaviors and changes you may see in your children at this age can range from being defiant and testing limits to increased worry and anxiety. Getting accustomed to new routines and changes will require patience as children adapt to your return. Remember, this is another huge change for kids — being patient and attentive will make for a positive reintegration into your family's life.

Red Flags for School-Age Children

With few exceptions, give your school age child time to adjust to all the changes — both during the deployment and upon your return. Many of the behaviors that have been described are a child's natural way of adjusting to change. Given time, kids are able to acclimatize themselves given a stable, consistent and nurturing environment. If you are a parent, you may ask yourself how long you should wait to seek professional help if you notice behaviors of concern. Experts vary, suggesting anywhere from a few months up to 6 months. The more severe or dangerous the behavior the sooner you should consider seeking advice or professional help for your child. Children that have previous emotional or behavioral difficulties are at an increased risk of having significant problems in coping with a deployment and therefore you might consider seeking help sooner. The following behaviors are "red flags" for this age and indicate a need for help:

  • High levels of aggression (hurting others, themselves, pets or toys)
  • Significant and continued changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Refusing to go to school or participate in typical activities
  • Difficulty calming down or coping with daily problems or routine issues
  • Major changes to school grades or friendships

What can you expect from your teenager (ages 13 - 17)?

A quick summary of this information can also be found at Teenagers Summary.

Adolescence brings on many new challenges, for your teen and for you as a parent. It can be a very emotional time, as hormones and bodies are changing and teens are exploring different roles and boundaries. "Challenging" is an important word to remember. To grow toward a secure and stable adulthood, teenagers must question, challenge and bounce off the limits and rules around them. Teenagers also learn about meaningful relationships, developing both friendships and dating relationships, during this period of their life. These relationships at times can be emotionally intense, but this is also how teenagers prepare for independence and adulthood. While teenagers seem to seldom be home, they still tend to return to their parents to seek advice when they encounter problems. Indeed, it is from family and your example that teenagers will internalize most of their ultimate values and beliefs. You also may be faced with some uncomfortable questions as your teenager is able to comprehend abstract ideas, so be prepared for questions regarding national security, the greater good or even the necessity of war as you discuss the deployment. Complex reasoning skills don't fully develop until young adults are into their early 20's.

  • Before Deployment

    While teenagers are more emotionally mature and can understand more complex concepts than their younger brothers and sisters, they too will react to the stress of a parent's deployment. In some instances teenagers will withdraw and try to ignore or deny their feelings regarding their parent's deployment. This can appear to be an "I don't care" attitude or an increased amount of time and focus spent with their friends away from home. Some teenagers will express their feelings by lashing out and arguing rather than facing their concerns with the deployment. Teenagers can exude "adult" reactions to news of the deployment and seem unfazed. However, it's important to provide opportunities for teens to verbalize their feelings, thoughts and fears.

  • During Deployment

    Many teenagers rise up to meet the challenge of having a parent deploy. They often readily assume additional responsibilities at home. They try to protect the remaining parent from additional stresses or worries. But many teenagers will also demonstrate anger, apathy and acting out as they struggle to find a balance between their lives and your deployment. Keep in mind teenagers vary widely in how they manage and express their emotions and don't be surprised at how often they turn toward their friends to avoid "family" feelings about their parent's absence. A decline in school grades and some loss of interest in activities is not unusual during this period of time.

  • After Deployment

    There are often strong, intense emotions by teenagers as the family seeks to readjust to the deployed parent's return. Teenagers focus on outward appearances and may act somewhat indifferent to your return even when they are excited on the inside. Some teenagers might withdraw and keep you at an emotional distance — because they're angry at you for leaving, they're protecting themselves in case you leave again or they're unsure about the changes that you will bring back into the family. Some teens may worry about not having lived up to your expectations or standards while you were gone. Typical teenage limit testing and defiance may continue with a possible added resentment over the changes (i.e., new rules) a returning parent often brings. If the returning parent is struggling with their adjustment from a wartime environment, teenagers will be conscious of these struggles and can worry about the meaning of those changes for themselves and for the family.

Red Flags for Teenagers

Several months of time, nurturing support, open communication and a stable environment will help most teens find their balance to the major changes inherent to a deployment. However, if behaviors of concern appear endangering to your teenager or others, or if you're just worried about your child, consider seeking help from a trusted friend, your church, the school, your doctor or a behavior health specialist. Since teenagers who had emotional or behavioral difficulties prior to the deployment are at greater risk during the deployment, consider seeking assistance sooner rather than later in this circumstance. With life threatening behaviors, don't wait — seek help right away. Behaviors considered "red flags" for teenagers and those that indicate a need for help in general would include the following:

  • High level of aggression or violence toward people, pets or property
  • Any mention of suicide or harming oneself
  • Total withdrawal from the family or running away
  • Considerable and prolonged drop in grades
  • Considerable and continued changes in mood, eating or sleeping patterns

Sources

The National Center for Telehealth and Technology.(n.d.). Families with Kids. Retrieved May 23, 2011 from AfterDeployment.org http://www.afterdeployment.org/topics-families-kids.

American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Military Deployment Services for Youth, Families and Service Members. (2007). The psychological needs of U.S. military service members and their families: a preliminary report. Retrieved April 17, 2011 from http://www.ptsd.ne.gov/publications/military-deployment-task-force-report.pdf.

Chandra, A., Burns, R., Tanielian, T., Jaycox, L. & Scott, M. (2008) Understanding the impact of deployment of children and families: findings from a pilot study of Operation Purple Camp participants (working paper). RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research.

Huebner, A. & Mancini, J. (2005). Adjustment among adolescents in military families when a parent is deployed: a final report submitted to the Military Family Research Institute and the Department of Defense Quality of Life Office. Falls Church, Virginia: Virginia Tech, Department of Human Development.

Levin, D. & Daynard, C. (2005). The "So Far" guide for helping children and youth cope with the deployment of a parent in the military Reserves. Psychoanalytic Couple and Family Institute of New England. Retrieved May 10, 2011 from http://www.k12.wa.us/operationmilitarykids/pubdocs/SofarPAMPHLETFINALMay06.pdf.

Sherman, M., Bowling, U., Anderson, J. & Wyche, K. (2010). Veteran Parent Toolkit. Retrieved April 6, 2011 from http://www.ouhsc.edu/VetParenting.

University of Michigan Depression Center. (2009). Welcome Back Parenting. Retrieved May 27, 2011 from http://www.welcomebackparenting.org.