What do children go through when a parent deploys?
Here to address this issue is developmental and behavioral pediatrician, Doris Greenberg, Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Mercer University School of Medicine in Savannah. Dr. Greenberg is a speaker at this year’s US Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress.
There are many topics that need to be explored when we think about what happens to children whose parents are deployed. We now face the reality that a parent may be deployed multiple times, and the effects of these deployments may multiply a child’s symptoms and problems.
What happens to a child when a parent comes back wounded or impaired— or if a parent dies? And there are other problems that often occur when a deployed parent returns home. For example: family violence, substance abuse by the parent, or family fracture.
In today’s world, we still have many children whose parents have been deployed longer than the child has been alive. The boundaries of deployment have changed. There are issues related to preparing for a parent’s deployment; readjusting when the parent returns; and then readjusting when the parent prepares to leave again.
Before a parent goes away, there is often puzzlement and dread. What will happen to my father or mother? Who will take care of me? Will I be able to go to school? See my friends? These problems affect about 1.8 million children. We don’t have statistics for children of single parents.
Some children mature when a parent deploys. It’s not always negative. But a lot of problems occur with children in particular developmental stages: in preschoolers, for example, have a much different feeling about the deployment when their attachment to the parent is interrupted. Adolescents on the other hand may become more independent and may develop their own skills and social groups to compensate. Middle-aged children may have problems that teachers and parents may be able to help.
What happens to children whose parents deploy from the National Guard, where there is no military community? How do they cope when they are in isolation and people around them have no idea what they are going through?
With current deployment, we are seeing many soldiers return who are not just wounded physically, but also wounded mentally. The children who come to grips with their parent’s physical incapacitation may have to learn to cope with an angry abusive externalizing parent who may have PTSD or traumatic brain injury. The physically wounded may require a spouse to stay with them, causing neglect of the children.
There are so many targets we have to hit and issues to deal with when it comes to the children of deployed parents: we have to consider the child’s developmental age, resilience, and community, religious, and military support systems.