- Describe the emotional effects of stressful events, such as deployment, on children and families.
- Describe strategies you can use before, during, and after deployment to support children and families.
- Provide support to children and families who experience stressful life events.
It is likely that some children and families in your care will face challenging life events that can put their mental health and overall well-being at risk. Such events might include death, divorce, job loss, relocation, violence in the home, or separation. As a child development professional on or near a military installation, you will also likely work with children who experience deployment, or you may experience deployment in your own family. Deployment is a difficult time in the lives of children and families. Each family handles these challenges differently, and each child will have unique needs. The findings of studies comparing children from military families to those from civilian families seem to indicate a greater likelihood of mental health and behavioral concerns among children in military families (Cramm et al., 2019). Nevertheless, there are typical changes you can expect as children experience challenging and stressful transitions and life events.
This lesson describes the effects of stressful events on young children's lives while highlighting ways you can support children and their families during times of crisis. You will learn the typical emotional and behavioral experiences of young children before, during, and after deployment, and ways you can support children and their families at each stage of deployment.
Stress in Young Children's Lives
Young children's reactions to stress may be different from older children's reactions. Unlike older children, younger children may not always be able to verbally express exactly what they are feeling, for example whether they are afraid, anxious, confused, angry, sad or feeling helpless (Zero to Six Collaborative Group, National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2010). Often, their feelings are manifested in their behaviors and these behaviors can be clues about what they feel inside. When dealing with stressful events, children may: become clingy or fearful of new situations; demonstrate aggression; experience difficulty sleeping; or even appear to lose recently acquired skills. Let's consider deployment and how it can affect children and families.
Emotional Characteristics of Deployment
Deployment is a challenge for any family. For families faced with repeated or multiple deployments, the following seven-stage emotional cycle describes their typical emotional cycles.
When families learn about the deployment, they are faced with preparing themselves financially, emotionally, and physically. The deploying parent may need to spend extra time at work prior to the departure. Both parents may spend a great deal of time getting ready for the deployment, packing, filling out paperwork, performing routine home or auto maintenance, finding babysitters or making extra childcare arrangements.
For many families, especially those who have been deployed before, there may be a period of detachment or withdrawal prior to deployment. Family members might emotionally prepare themselves for the pain of separation by isolating themselves. During this period, there might be fights or anger.
Children experience a variety of emotions prior to a deployment. They may not understand why their mother, father, or other family member has to leave. It is common for young children to feel that it is their "fault" that their parent is leaving. This happens often when children have unanswered questions about the deployment. Because infants' and toddlers' sense of time is not developed, they may feel anxious or confused about when a family member is leaving. They may not fully understand that a separation will occur until the point at which it actually happens, or they may not understand how long the separation will last, or even that the separation is temporary. They may be confused by the changes they see in their household. The deploying parent may need to spend extra hours at work in preparation for deployment, and the spouse may be making arrangements for life as a single parent by attending to necessary legal, medical, or financial matters.
All of these emotions can show themselves in different ways. During this stage, the child may act withdrawn, sad, or quiet. Changes in routines may make the child more likely to act out. You might see difficulty in infants' and toddlers' sleep patterns, they may display greater irritability, or have trouble feeding. Some children may cry more, show more aggressive behaviors or tantrums, or regress to previous behaviors (e.g., no longer use the toilet or feed themselves).
When a family member begins their deployment, the at-home family members go through a period of disorganization. They may be sad and anxious about how the family will function. The at-home caregiver may feel overwhelmed by responsibility. It takes time to settle into new routines. Eventually the family recovers and develops routines that work for them; they have a new "normal."
Family member deployment during infancy and toddlerhood can be an especially challenging time, as infants' and toddlers' are just beginning to build their understanding of the world through their relationships with important people in their lives. Infants and toddlers look to their important caregivers to help them manage their emotions, especially in times of stress. When one caregiver is gone, infants and toddlers will need the remaining caregivers to maintain nurturing and responsive relationships with them. This helps infants and toddlers better handle the separation. This is not always easy, as the remaining parent or caregiver may also be experiencing high stress and so may struggle to maintain sensitive and responsive caregiving. Your support to families during deployment is incredibly important; you are working with them to maintain the loving, responsive relationships that infants and toddlers need.
Once the parent deploys, children will go through a range of emotions. They may be sad, lonely, confused, angry, or scared. Fear of separation may be a major concern for toddlers. They may be afraid that the remaining parent will leave or abandon them. They may need constant reassurance that their mom, dad, or guardian is close by or will pick them up from child care.
In child development programs, you may see children behaving more aggressively. You may also see children become clingy, shy, quiet, or fearful. Fears are common for all infants and toddlers, and deployment may increase their fears. They may be drawn to adults for comfort.
As the day for the return draws closer, the family prepares for more changes. They may be excited about the family member's return. They may feel a little nervous about whether their relationship with the deployed family member has changed. As so much development happens in the infant and toddler years, the returning family member may also have fears about reconnecting with their young child. When the deployed family member returns, the family goes through another transition. The non-deployed caregiver might have mixed emotions about their changing role; this person has "done it alone" for quite some time and must renegotiate roles and expectations. Children may also have a hard time bringing the deployed family member back into their daily routines. The deployed person may have doubts about where they fit into the family and these feelings of doubt can be “felt” by the children as they react to their family members’ emotions. Again, over time, the family stabilizes.
Immediately before and after the parent returns, the child may be excited and energetic. The child may also feel a little nervous and shy about the parent returning. Children may be scared that they won't recognize their parent. They may also be afraid that the parent will leave again. They may be confused by the changes happening in their home as family members visit and their parents negotiate new roles.
You can read more about infants' and toddlers' challenges with deployment in the Learn Activities resource, Deployment and Coming Home: The Realities for Infants and Toddlers in Military Life from Zero to Three (2009).
How can programs support children facing challenging life situations? Listen as this manager discusses how she and her program support families during deployment.
Protective Factors: Fostering Resilience in Young Children and Families
There are characteristics of children and families have attributes that can protect them as they go through stressful events. Research on resilience in children demonstrates that a significant protective factor for children is the consistent presence of a caring, positive, and protective caregiver (Zero to Six Collaborative Group, National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2010). This person can be an ongoing resource for the particular child, and can encourage them to talk about their experiences, and provide reassurance that adults in the child's life are working to keep them safe.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, you can support children who face stressful challenges when you:
- Maintain consistent classroom routines as much as possible. This provides children with a much-needed sense of stability and safety.
- Provide opportunities for children to talk about what is going on, but do not force them to talk if they don't want to. Encouraging children to talk about their feelings and validating them strengthens children's coping as they hear that all their feelings are OK.
- Be watchful of changes in children's behaviors over time. Changes in behaviors, for example acting out or withdrawing from peers or caregivers, may indicate that a child needs extra support.
- Encourage families to connect with other families who deal with similar stressors. Connecting with others allows families to share experiences and healthy coping strategies.
The remainder of this lesson focuses on how you can support children and families before, during, and after deployment.
Support Before Deployment
Most importantly, you can help families find the resources they need, such as Military One Source (http://www.militaryonesource.mil/) or other resources available in their particular Service. Pre-deployment counseling can help families learn ways to prepare children for the deployment.
Encourage families to talk with their children honestly about the deployment; infants and toddlers need to hear this information just as much as older children and preschoolers do. It is important for families to help children understand:
- Why the parent is leaving: The deploying parent has an important job to do and they know how to do the job well; they are not going alone.
- When the deploying parent is leaving
- What the family will do together before the parent leaves
- How the child will communicate with the parent while they are deployed
- What will stay the same when the parent leaves: for example, one parent will still be here for breakfast and dinner, the child will still go to the same child care program, the family will still have fun together, etc.
Also encourage families to start thinking about ways to help the child feel close to the deployed parent. Are there personal items the parent and child can exchange before the deployment (e.g., a picture or favorite t-shirt)? Having items available in your classroom that the children can visit regularly will support their understanding of the deployed parent and help them to remain connected as much as possible.
Support During Deployment
During periods of deployment, it is especially important that you help the child and family maintain normal routines. Early in the deployment is not the time to transition a child to a new classroom or caregiver. Reassure the child that their parent will pick the child up as usual. Provide lots of hugs and comfort. Answer the child's questions as simply and matter-of-factly as possible.
Integrate emotional literacy and problem-solving into your curriculum. Help children learn to recognize, name, and deal with emotions. Talk about emotions every day. Look at pictures of children with different emotions, read stories about feelings and deployment, do activities that let the child identify and talk about their feelings. Help the child develop strategies for calming down and dealing with anger or fear.
Be prepared to help the parent with problems that arise. Parents may be confused by changes in their child's behavior. A parent may feel alone and unsure of how to provide discipline or guidance. The parent may feel frustrated by challenges with toilet training, feeding, tantrums, or baby talk. The parent may go through periods of self-doubt, depression, or helplessness. Remember that it is important for parents to take care of their own mental and physical health. Help them connect with a Family Readiness Group, behavioral health counseling, or clergy. You can provide resources, training, and support around positive guidance and discipline. You can also help families think of ways to make life easier during their deployment. Use conversations, newsletters, and family nights to help families share ideas like:
- Keeping track of time by putting a coin in a jar each day of the deployment; the child can buy the parent a homecoming gift upon their return
- Going on family trips to the park
- Draw pictures or write letters to the deployed family member
- Have a family camp-out in the yard
- Schedule "date nights" (or days) with each child individually
- Create a family calendar
- Revisit photo books of the family together and of the deployed family member at work
- Create an emotions book and discuss with the child how they are feeling in that particular moment and what they can do to help regulate their emotions if needed
- Figure out a special way to say goodnight to the deployed family member each night
Support After Deployment
Celebrate with the family and the child. Answer questions and let the child talk. Acknowledge the child's feelings, and help the child find words or pictures to describe those feelings. Make sure they know all feelings are OK. It is normal to feel shy or nervous when you haven't seen someone for a while, and this can be especially true for infants and toddlers. Recognize that this is a major transition for the family, and they will likely need to be connected with resources and supports. Work with your program to identify resources you can share.
Read the following scenario and think about the suggestions provided to support children in your care during the different phases of deployment.
Wayne and Natalia, parents of a child in your class, both serve in the military. They met while on assignment in Asia and have been serving together around the world ever since. They love travel and living in new places. In their eight year marriage, they have had two international assignments. They had their first child, Ximena, two years ago, and she is now a child in your toddler classroom. Although they have moved frequently, they have never been deployed at the same time-- until now. Wayne and Natalia have both been assigned six month tours of duty. In some regards, Wayne and Natalia feel well prepared for the trip: they know Natalia's mother will care for Ximena, and they have completed all the pre-deployment paperwork for Ximena's insurance and care. They feel less prepared for the emotional toll of such a long separation. What can you and your program do to help this family, and particularly Ximena, before, during, and after the dual deployment?
You may consider the following:
- Encourage the family to begin talking with Ximena about the upcoming deployment.
- Talk about where the parents are going and why.
- Prepare Ximena for what will stay the same: she'll sleep at grandma's like she does sometimes now, she'll still go to your child development program, play her favorite games, eat her favorite foods, and have her special dolls and toys.
- Create personalized stories about her parents and what is going on while they are away for Ximena to read while she is at child care.
- Create special items that could comfort Ximena during difficult times in child care (e.g., make a pillow out of one of mom or dad's shirts for Ximena to sleep with).
- Provide Ximena with a consistent routine and predictable rituals at child care.
- Include reminders at school about routines that seem difficult for Ximena. You can do the same about routines that have been challenging at home as well.
- Talk with Ximena about emotions and encourage her to share her emotions by "writing" notes to her parents through her art projects. Add captions to her art as she tells you about it. Comfort her when she needs extra support.
- Share messages or notes that the parents sent to the child development center to be shared with Ximena.
- Provide honest responses to Ximena's questions or comments about her parents. For example, if she shares that she is scared, you can say, "I am scared sometimes too," or you can address a question about her parents by saying, "Your mommy and daddy are doing everything they can to be safe." Avoid elaborate responses which can be overwhelming to her.
- When Ximena's parents return home, help Ximena talk about her emotions: anxiety, shyness, excitement. Make sure she knows all emotions are OK.
- Organize a special activity that involves Ximena and her parents once they are back from deployment. For example, a parent-child lunch or picnic.
- Encourage Ximena to express her feelings and share how she feels.
- Have open and honest communication with Ximena’s grandmother; she will be experiencing many changes as well and this will affect Ximena while she is in your care.
Take Care of Yourself
You provide crucial support for children and families. You cannot do that, however, if you don't take care of yourself. Helping children through difficult and sometimes tragic times can be incredibly challenging. You might find that your own mental health mirrors that of the people around you. Make sure you take time to reflect on your own needs. Talk to people around you about your feelings. Talk to your administrator about resources in your community for families experiencing deployment or loss. Taking care of yourself will make you better able to care for children. You can learn more about your own self-care in the Social & Emotional Learning for Teachers (SELF-T) and Lesson Three in the Self and Cultural Understanding Course.
The odds are likely that you will work with a child who is affected by deployment. Therefore, it's important to think about how you will support these children and their families. Read the scenarios in the Supporting Children of Deployed Families activity, and answer the questions. Share your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.
You can also consider how this activity could be used to support children in families experiencing other kinds of separation such as long-term illness, incarceration, or frequent travel.
The death of a parent is perhaps the most emotionally challenging event that can happen to a child. Use the resources listed in Helping Children Deal with Grief, to help you support the mental health of children as they process their grief. Also refer to Supporting Children Who Are Experiencing Stress from Child Care Aware to better understand how to support preschoolers experiencing anxiety.
Child Welfare Information Gateway provides a list of helpful resources that could be shared with families. The listed resources focus on helping children and families deal with the deployment process, including preparing for deployment and family reunification following deployment.
Child Welfare Information Gateway: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/diverse-populations/military/deploymentresources/.
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