November 11, 2013

Carrie Bebermeyer

Helping Kids Cope While a Parent is Deployed

A SLU Pediatrician Offers Advice to Military Families

Matthew Broom, M.D. is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University and served as a military pediatrician in Japan and Virginia while in the Navy.
When a member of the military is deployed, children and spouses make their own sacrifices at home, adjusting to the temporary absence of their family member.

Deployment of a parent can present significant challenges and health concerns to children and their care-giver parent, says Matthew Broom, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University.

Earlier this year, Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, released a report called “Health and Mental Health Needs of U.S. Children in Military Families,” noting that “up to 2 million U.S. children have been exposed to a wartime deployment of a loved one in the past 10 years.”

While in the Navy, Broom regularly saw children of deployed parents in military pediatric offices. His biggest take away message from that experience is that families who are most successful at navigating deployment are those who plan and communicate.

Children who struggle may experience anxiety, fear, depression, anger or may simply seem very sad. These feelings can become apparent in many ways, including sleep disturbances, regression, trouble in school, denial of feelings and non-communication.

“Active strategies to help kids cope can help make the difference for whether kids will be able to bloom where they are planted or start to wither under the stress,” says Broom, who is a SLUCare pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center.

And, though there are challenges, Broom says, there can also be real strength and resiliency gained by working through the issues as a family.

Broom offers the following tips to help children cope with a parent’s deployment:

1. Plan
Planning goes a long way. Acknowledge that there will be challenges for each person in the family at each stage: pre-deployment, deployment, and the return home.

"Time is the currency kids care about. Scheduling time with the parent they've been missing is a great way to reconnect."

Before deployment, a service member may be very busy with training exercises, making it hard to help out or spend as much time as he or she would like with family members. After a deployment, there is frequently a “honeymoon” period, which is a happy reunion for the family. But, as real life and routines set in again, there may be challenges to address and readjustments to make.

By planning, a family can anticipate some common challenges and come up with a game plan.

“It’s important for family members to talk about those things, develop a plan, to know it won’t be the same and that there will need to be compromise on both sides,” said Broom. “Know that things may not feel perfect or exactly like old times once everyone is back together, but plan new activities and move forward to the next stage.”

When parents return home, Broom recommends that they set aside specific time that they will spend with children that their kids can look forward to.

“Time is the currency kids care about. Scheduling time with the parent they’ve been missing is a great way to reconnect.”

2. Stay Connected
During deployment, help a child feel connected to their missing parent. Post a photo of the entire family in a visible place in the house so that children will feel the presence of their absent parent and know that he or she isn’t forgotten.

Children can make a scrap book or keep a journal with daily events and achievements to share with their parent when he or she returns.

"Identify the situation. Say, ‘It's not perfect, but look at what we can do.'"

3. Communicate
“In a deployment, you have two parents with two very different sets of challenging experiences. On one hand you may have a deployed service member who may have suffered from traumatic injuries or who doesn’t feel understood or appreciated. Meanwhile, a mother of four may be home trying to maintain the household and keep smiling.

“Both parents need to ask ‘How am I doing?’ and being able to recognize when to ask for help.”

To limit misunderstandings and offer support, have the whole family commit to communicate. This can be especially difficult for adolescents who are becoming more independent, but make it a priority for your family.

4. Touch Base
During deployment, Skype and cell phones have provided a dramatic change from the days of letter writing in how we communicate. If possible, set a regular time to talk once or twice a week. This can be a good anchor for staying connected and a moment children can anticipate

However, watch out for the stressful side of instant access to technology, news reports, and even the sense of urgency that a Skype visit, for instance, can create. The immediacy of combat can actually make children’s fears for their parents feel more real.

Broom says filter, don’t censor. You can’t put your children in a bubble, particularly once they reach adolescence. But, you can limit constant exposure to news and help them make sense of what they see, reassuring them that their parent is safe and coming home.

5. Take Care of Yourself
Children are highly sensitive to their parents’ emotions, and can easily become sponges for stress and worry when they observe their parents are upset. It’s important that care-giver parents seek their own support because they often set the emotional tone in the family.

For those who live in military-heavy areas of the country, there is often very strong support from people who understand and share the challenges of deployment. For those who don’t live in an area with as many military members, it can be more challenging. It is important to seek out friends who are empathetic and can understand the unique stress of a deployment situation.

Broom also encourages care-giver parents to talk to their physician about anxiety and stress – an appropriate reaction to a new or changing situation with a deployed spouse – about coping strategies and help.

Don’t let reticence to ask for help keep you from the resources that are available. Talk to healthcare providers – both adult primary care providers and pediatricians – about your stress levels and coping strategies. Let them know if your children are sad or anxious. Sometimes, a child will seem fine at home, but starts to have a difficult time in school. Explore what may be going on.

The military also has many resources for families, even partnering with Sesame Street.

6. Look for the Positive
"Growing up in the Midwest I, like many others, did not fully appreciate what our active duty military does on a daily basis," said Broom. "That's an important thing to broadcast with our kids, particularly emphasizing the importance and value of the service provided to us by the active duty members, and then modeling appreciation for the sacrifices that military families make."

Instead of looking at a deployment as lost time away from each other, consider the milestones achieved by each family member as cause for celebration, making the entire family unit stronger. A deployed service member may be learning new skills, a child may be learning to read, a care-giver parent may be starting a new job.

“Identify the situation,” says Broom. “Say, ‘It’s not perfect, but look at what we can do.’”

And in the end, children of service members often develop a resiliency, flexibility and strong sense of pride in their parents’ service that stay with them for a lifetime.

“For all of the challenges that come with military service, I can say that it also was an incredible experience for my family,” says Broom.

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, liver disease, heart/lung disease, aging and brain disease, and infectious disease.

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