What do young children feel when one of their parents is on duty far away? That’s not always an easy question to answer, because the kids may not be able to put their feelings into words. But a look at the data gives some idea of their challenges.
Researchers recently looked at medical records for some 640,000 military children, ages 3 to 8. They found that those with parents deployed in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan were more likely to visit the doctor for help with emotional problems. These included mood, anxiety and adjustment issues. There also were more doctor visits for conditions not clearly related to deployment, such as autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
A “recognition problem”
The statistics also showed different patterns depending on which parent was deployed. When dads were abroad, the visits for emotional issues were highest. These visits were fewer when mothers were overseas. The same was true for children of deployed single parents. This doesn’t mean, though, that kids of deployed fathers were going through more stress. More likely, their stress was getting noticed more.
Gregory Gorman, MD, who led the team of researchers, sees a “recognition problem” here. “Someone who knows a child well is best equipped to spot something,” he says. Mothers tend to spend more time with their young children, so they can better sense when something’s wrong. When a single parent is away, friends or relatives usually care for the child. They may not know the child as well as the mother or father does.
Separation takes its toll
What are these children going through? The most critical issue, says psychiatrist Judith Broder, is separation anxiety. This comes from “the unknownness of what happens when Dad or Mom … are gone,” she says. Small children have trouble understanding how someone can still exist when they can’t be seen. If a parent isn’t visible, Broder says, he is “gone”—it’s as if the child has lost that parent.
Children express this fear in different ways at different ages. Pre-schoolers may become clingy and afraid of strangers. They may start bedwetting or have tantrums. Slightly older kids may start complaining of headaches, stomachaches or other physical pain. They may have trouble sleeping. With school-age children, the danger signs may be falling grades or discipline problems.
Depression can also be an issue. “An active boy may not want to go out and play,” says Broder. “He may be tired all the time or have trouble sleeping.”
Look for changes—and communicate
A trained eye might spot deployment-related issues. But not everyone is trained. That includes doctors. Broder says it is crucial that a physician “knows the context” about the parent being overseas. Military families need to make sure of this when they go off base for doctor visits. So do National Guard and reserve families, who typically go to civilian doctors.
But how do you know when to go to the doctor in the first place? Look for “a change in the child’s behavior,” Gorman says. The better you know the child, the easier this is. And do all you can to tap the knowledge of the deployed parent.
That means keeping the overseas parent in the loop, using every tool you can. Video conferencing is especially helpful. And Internet-based services such as Skype make it cheap and easy. It gives the deployed parent a way to see and hear children in real time. She might be able to spot subtle changes that the at-home parent has missed. Seeing and talking to the absent parent is also great for the kids. It shows that Mom or Dad is still there for them.