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Providing a Strong Foundation for the Military Child

April is the Month of the Military Child, which gives the Nation the opportunity to recognize the character, strength, and sacrifices of America's military children, as well as the role they play in the armed forces community. There are currently 1.7 million children and youth under age 18 who have a parent serving in the military and approximately 900,000 who have had one or both parents deployed multiple times. This article will specifically focus on 3- to 6-year-old children and the anxiety and stress they face as a result of having a deployed parent.

Military children face many unique challenges compared to their nonmilitary peers, such as adjusting to the absence of the deployed parent, moving and changing schools frequently, and coping with parental injury and even death as a result of combat. Nothing disrupts a child’s base of security as much as having a parent deployed overseas and, particularly, to a war zone. As a result, the military child deals with additional stressors such as changes in the family dynamic at home and interrupted relationships formed in school and in their neighborhoods as a result of moving. Adults may recognize and understand the stress that the at-home spouse faces as a result of a deployed family member. However, it is important for adults to understand that stress extends to the child at home too. Not only does the child miss the deployed parent, but he or she undergoes the added anxiety of worrying about the deployed parent’s health and safety. The anxiety does not always end when the deployed parent returns home, often bringing the war home with him or her.

How Children Express Anxiety

Children aged 3–6 are old enough to miss an absent, deployed parent. During a time of parental deployment, young children’s anxieties may express themselves in several ways, some mild and some severe. After a period of adjustment, most military children will settle into their new reality. However, some children experience traumatic stress, which may affect their physical and emotional health, academic performance, and relationships with others, all of which can lead to risky behaviors and a period of difficult adjustment. It is vital for parents, caregivers, and families to foster a healthy environment and provide the necessary support to prevent their children from engaging in risky behaviors during deployment and later in life.

It is important to watch for the warning signs associated with changes in the child’s behavior. While children’s emotions are affected by a parent’s actual absence, the effects of deployment may be felt before and after a parent leaves, after he or she returns, and again in the case of redeployment. As a result, the following behaviors may be typical of a military child:

  • Sleep issues: bedwetting, nightmares, or other changes in sleep patterns;
  • Separation anxiety: clinging to the at-home parent;
  • Withdrawal: separation from friends and loss of interest in activities around them;
  • Frustration: inability to deal with small upsets, aggressiveness; and
  • Fear: Belief that the absent parent left because of something he or she did.

If you notice any of the symptoms listed above, help ease the child’s concerns and increase his or her sense of security. The following tips are ways in which you can help your child cope with stress and anxiety.

Reducing Stress and Anxiety: Tips To Help a Military Child Cope

Families can take some general steps to lessen the impact of a deployed parent on a young child. It is important to provide the child with the following:

  • Structure: Keep family routines the same and the lines of communication open as much as possible.
  • Reassurance: Talk with your child and listen openly to his or her concerns and worries about the absent parent. Provide comfort to him or her when it’s needed.
  • Security: Monitor your own reactions to the other parent’s absence and serve as a good role model. Children take their cue on how to react from the adults around them.
  • Outlets: Find activities where your child can express himself or herself, such as with art, sports, or gardening. Participate in these activities with the child—quality time is important.
  • Information access: Monitor the amount of information about war that the child is exposed to, either from news sources or from conversations with friends and family.

Families can take the following specific steps during the different stages of a parent’s active military service:

Predeployment: The time just before deployment when the parent is preparing to leave.

  • Talk about the deployment and what the child can expect. Emphasize that the soon-to-be-deployed parent knows his or her job and will be with others who also know their jobs.
  • Inform all caregivers, including teachers, of the change about to occur in your family.

Deployment: The time the parent is away.

  • Maintain your usual routines. Try not to change what does not need to be changed. Routines are comforting. They let the child know what to expect and help him or her to feel more secure.
  • Communicate with the deployed parent through all available media, including letters, emails, photos, video chat, and phone calls. Encourage the child to make cards and draw pictures to send.
  • Avoid saying exactly when the deployed parent is expected to return home, as plans can change at the last minute. Instead, emphasize that the parent will be home as soon as the job is done.
  • Connect with other children facing a similar situation. 

Reintegration: When the absent parent returns home.

  • Even the shortest deployment involves changes—in the deployed parent, in the at-home parent, in the home environment and schedules, and in the child. Remind the child how he or she has changed—the child may be taller, can now tie shoes, and can count to 100. Acknowledging the child’s changes can help him or her understand and expect changes in the deployed parent.
  • Be patient. Your child may be reluctant to warm up to and engage with the returning parent right away. This is a period of adjustment for everyone in the home and it will take some time.

Redeployment: When the parent returns to the war zone.
In some cases, the parent may be asked to redeploy overseas. This can put even more stress on the child, as he or she may have recently adjusted to the parent’s coming home. It will be critical for families to provide a strong foundation for the child and reduce the stress and anxiety he or she may be experiencing as a result of the redeployment. The following steps will aid in providing support for the child:

  • Do not talk about the parent returning to the war zone until the orders come through and it is final.
  • Remind your child that the family pulled together during the initial deployment and will do so again.
  • Enlist the help of extended family members to increase your child’s base of security.
  • Spend time with the child alone to make sure he or she feels valued.

When To Seek Professional Help

As parents and caregivers, it is important to understand that some amounts of stress are normal for your child, given the circumstances surrounding the deployed parent. You can let the child know that it is okay to feel sad, anxious, and scared. It may help to share some of your own feelings about the situation to help children understand they are not alone in how they feel. Remember to talk with other caregivers and teachers about what your child is going through. Added support at home and school is vital in helping your child cope.

The books and resources listed below also can help address the emotions and behaviors that your child may be going through. The child may be able to identify with book characters that may be experiencing similar issues.

If your child continues to show signs or symptoms that concern you, consult your physician or school counselor.

Family Activity: Staying Connected to an Absent Parent: Creating a Memory Box

Educator Activity: The Military Child in Your Classroom

Quiz for Parents: Helping the Military Child Cope


About the Government-Designated Month of the Military Child

  • The White House Blog, Month of the Military Child (includes video): First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden discuss the role the military child plays in the armed forces community.
  • Month of the Military Child, from the U.S. Department of Defense, offers links to resources and programs for military families.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

  • Helping Children of Military Families” offers links to agency-suggested resources to aid parents, educators, and other caregivers in helping children cope during a parent’s deployment.
  • Military Families provides several online resources for families needing ideas or guidance on issues involving children.

Mental Health America

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Additional Resources

Children’s Books Related to Military Deployment (for children aged 4–8)

McElroy, L. T.(2005). Love, Lizzie: Letters to a Military Mom (D. Paterson, Illus.). Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman.
Bunting, E. (2005). My Red Balloon (K. Life, Illus.). Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
Ehrmantraut, B. (2005). Night Catch (V. Wehrman, Illus.). Lansing, MI: Bubble Gum Press.
Tomp, S. W. (2005). Red, White, and Blue Good-bye (A. Barrow, Illus.). New York: Walker Books.
Pelton, M. L. (2004). When Dad’s at Sea (R.G. Steele, Illus.). Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman.
From the National Association for the Education of Young Children: Literature to Help Children Cope with Family Stressors

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Updated on 3/21/2012