The Military Child: The Effects of Deployments and Stress on the Brain

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Currently, 1.7 million children under the age of 18 have a parent serving in the military.  About 900,000 of them have had one or both parents deployed multiple times.  This post is designed to bring awareness to the unique needs, strengths, courage and sacrifices these children and families face. As we recognize and appreciate those serving in the military it is valuable to do all we can to to support the families and the youngest generation affected. This issue is extremely personal to me as my granddaughter is a military child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has said:
"military children and adolescents exposed to parental deployment experience ambiguous loss and stress, often beyond normative levels that may become toxic if not detected and address in a timely manner."
A study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics supports the AAP's statement and found that children of service members are 2 1/2 times more likely to develop psychological problems than civilian children.   This was found to be a result of high stress levels in the parent who remains at home when a spouse is deployed.  Many people may think babies and toddlers are too young to be aware of what is going on around them, however, as I've said many times before on this blog, children are very intuitive and can pick up when you are stressed which in turn makes them stressed.  When a child is stressed, cortisol, the stress hormone, is released.  High cortisol levels in the brain can lead to a child feeling overwhelmed, fearful, a distortion of thoughts and feelings and a brain that is wired for hypersensitivity in life. 

Fortunately, the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics study found that military, family and community support groups help reduce family stress during deployments.  There are actions each of us can take to help military children whether we are a service member, a parent at home while the other parent is deployed, a teacher, a caregiver, or a community member.  Below are ideas of what you can do to help a military child through a deployment or a difficult time.

Parents At Home
  • Consistent and loving caregiving will help mitigate stress levels as much as possible and help make the child feel safe.  
  • Maintain routines.  This will help the child's brain know what to expect and feel less stressed.
  • Turn off the news.  Hearing stories about the war may scare or make the child worry.
  • Give emotional support.  The child may not yet know how to express their feelings verbally so recognize when behavioral outburst may be a result of feeling sad or scared.  If they are able to talk give them the words they are looking for such as "Are you sad?" "Do you miss Daddy?" and make them feel safe talking about their feelings.  If they aren't yet able to talk, make them feel safe by hugging them or holding them.  Zero To Three has a great guide that helps interpret some of the child's actions and what they might mean and how to respond.  Check it out here.
  • Have the child draw pictures or cards to send to the deployed parent.  This allows the child to express their feelings and feel a connection to the deployed parent.
  • Ask for help.  Remember to take care of yourself so your are able to take care of your child(ren).  If you are stressed your children will be affected by it.  Have a friend, family member, spouses club, or community organization watch you child so you can have a break or attend events with other deployed families for support.
Deployed Parents

     Prior to Deployment
  • Make sure you child knows they are loved and they you are not leaving because of them.
  • Be Honest.  As soon as you start preparing for deployment explain what is happening to the child, don't try to hide it from them.
  • Talk to you child.  Let them tell you they are scared or don't want you to go and share your feelings with them as well.  It will help them realize that its okay to have these feeling and to talk about them.
  • Get them involved.  If old enough, show them on a map where you are going, learn about the area together.  If possible take them on a tour of the ship you'll be on or to the equipment you'll be using.  This will help them have a clearer understanding of what you will be doing while your gone and where you'll be.  Easing some of the uncertainty.
  • Make something together that they can use to pass the time.  Ideas include a calendar with pictures of you and the child that they can mark off the days until you come home, a paper chain with the links representing the number of days you'll be gone--the child can take one chain down each day.
  • Make a video of you reading the child's favorite book that they can read a long with.
     During Deployment
  • Send emails, letters, cards, pictures, and items from the area as much as possible.  They will feel special when they receive something from you in the mail.
  • Call or Skype if possible
  • Make a video of you reading another book so they have a new one to read along with you.
Caregivers/Community Members
  • Recognize distress symptoms in children such as clinging, unexplained crying, choosing adults over same-age children, acts of violence, etc.  and do your best to lessen those anxieties.  Tips on how to deal with these signs are available in Zero To Three's guide Honor Our Babies.  
  • Help Midigate stress for the parent at home.  Offer to cook a meal for the family, watch the children, do yard work, etc.  The reduction in work load can help reduce a parent's stress level, and even the offer of support helps.
The need for more research on the affects of being a military child is apparent but in the mean time please help spread the word about the needs of these military children and families.  These children make a sacrifice so their parents can defend our country.  Please help their brain develop well through your support. 

For an extremely easy way to support military families organizations can provide, brain development activity packets. These unique and beautiful packets provide parents with ideas, knowledge and information they need to .... even during busy every day life!

If you would like to learn more, contact me about doing a presentation about the effects of stress on developing brains. It would be a great pleasure to share information to create further understanding!

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexia Riveracorrea

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