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When a Parent Goes to War: Helping Your Children Cope With Their Fears

By: LIFELines

Deployment of parents to a dangerous area, particularly during a war, may leave children frightened and insecure, wondering whether Mom or Dad will come home safely. Children may display a variety of emotional responses, and it is important to recognize that these responses are normal. How a parent reacts will make a great difference in the child's understanding and recovery.

Let's talk about the reactions you can expect to see in different age groups:

For children 5 years of age and younger, typical reactions can include a fear of being separated from the parent or guardian, crying, whimpering, trembling and excessive clinging. Parents may also notice children returning to behaviors of a younger age, such as thumb-sucking, bedwetting, and a fear of darkness. Do not criticize the child for these behaviors, as they are normal in this situation because safety is a primary concern for this age group. Reassure them that you will keep them safe, and maintain normal routines as much as possible while limiting media exposure.

Expect that you may have to give the same explanations over and over as they try to incorporate why their military parent had to be deployed to a combat situation. Keep bedtime routines per usual with lots of extra hugs. Spend time with them looking at their deployed parent's pictures, and encourage them to send good wishes. Encourage them to draw pictures about what they are feeling. Take those pictures and make a book, writing down what your children say about the picture on the bottom of each page. Make photocopies of prior pictures of your children with their deployed parent, and let them cut them out and paste them on their storybook pages. Cuddle with them as your read the book together.

What about the school-age child? Children 6-11 years old may show refusal to attend school, withdrawal, disruptive behavior and/or inability to pay attention, sleep problems, and outbursts of anger or fighting. In this age group they may also complain of stomachaches or other bodily symptoms that have no medical basis. Schoolwork often suffers, and depression, anxiety, or flatness may be present. Children this age are more aware of what's going on and have probably discussed things at school. They are concerned about the safety of their family members. Ask them if they have questions and tell them what you know without exaggerating or overreacting.

Limit TV coverage and try to spend extra time together to provide reassurance. Allow children to cry and be sad. Don't expect them to be brave and tough. If you are feeling overwhelmed and worry you won't be able to cope, don't share this with your young children. If they are worried about you as well as their deployed parent, they may feel they have to put on a happy face for you. If you need help coping, seek support from your ombudsperson, local Family Services Center, or your primary care provider.

And finally, what about adolescents ages 12-17? Adolescents may exhibit symptoms similar to adults, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Also common are withdrawal and isolation, physical complaints, school avoidance and academic decline, and even suicidal thoughts. Children this age have probably seen many tragic images on TV, the Internet, and magazines.

Some teens may want to block out the events and act as if they don't care in an attempt to mask their fears, anger, or sadness. They may express fears for their deployed parent's future and you should share what you know without exaggeration. Be reassuring, but don't make unrealistic promises. Let them know how you are feeling. It's ok for children ages 12 and up to know that you are anxious, scared, or preoccupied by recent events. Children will usually pick up on it anyway, and if you don't explain the cause, they may think it is their fault.

Most children and adolescents, if given the support described above, will be able to cope with the stress of their parent's deployment to a dangerous zone until they return. Clearly some children and adolescents will need more help perhaps over a longer period of time in order to heal and reduce their anxiety. It is important to identify those who are in need of more intensive support and therapy.

Those who may need more help may include those who show avoidance behavior, such as resisting going to usual places or being separated from their parents, persistent decline in school performance or behavior problems, and those who become isolative. Potentially serious conditions that can occur are depression and anxiety disorders, possibly even leading to suicide attempts.

So, where can concerned parents turn for help? If a child is showing the persistent symptoms we discussed, a first step would be to contact your pediatrician or primary care provider. They can help you obtain a referral for mental health care for your child or adolescent, preferably by a mental health professional with expertise in the area of this age group. Recommendations may include group therapy, individual therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, and possibly medication depending on the severity of the child's symptoms.

But don't forget there are other resources which may be helpful as well. Teachers, school administrators, school counselors, coaches and religious youth leaders can all be tremendous support resources depending on your child's activities and your spiritual beliefs. Some schools or Family Services Centers will offer support groups during this time. If you have young children in daycare, let your daycare provider know how your child is reacting and that extra reassurance and flexibility is needed. Coordinate information between home and school. Let your child's teachers know about discussions which take place at home, and about any particular fears, concerns or questions a child may have mentioned. Keep up with your child's school and extra-curricular activities, and try to maintain their normal routine. Exercise and fun are important ways for them to deal with their stress.