No matter how stoic a military spouse you are, you know there are times that military life is stressful. For members of the Guard, the types of stress and the forms it take can be different, but it all boils down to feelings we would rather not have to deal with for extended periods of time.
Deployments set themselves apart as stressful periods in military life. We know it's hard on us and we know it's hard on our faraway spouses, but what about the kids? It's helpful to know what to look for in our children so we can respond to their needs in a timely manner. I know this was an additional source of Mom guilt and stress for me when Hubs was gone, but sometimes the stateside spouse will need to shoulder the stress of figuring out how best to help the kids cope.
How do you recognize stress in your kids? What does a stressed infant look like? How can you tell your moody teenagers' deployment-related stress from their normal charming demeanors? The National Guard Family Program offers some helpful guidelines.
For the teeny tiny to kindergartner set, stress manifests itself in fussiness, uncharacteristic crying and neediness as well as sleep disturbances and separation anxiety. Kids may have a hard time identifying how they are feeling or talking about it. It's hard for them to put into words what is bothering them. For this age group, it is especially important to establish a routine as best you can. It will help reduce your own stress level and for the wee ones, consistency is key. Give them easy words to talk about their big feelings. Also, making sure you carve out time for cuddling and activities the kids enjoy will do wonders. My mantra during deployment was: There are only 24 hours each day and I am only one person. If you are tempted to do dishes rather than putting together a puzzle with your child or you think you just MUST clean up the living room rather than watching a favorite TV program with your preschooler, cut yourself some slack and SIT DOWN.
For the elementary school set (6-11), you may notice the kids become what my household affectionately calls, space cadets. Generally confused, the cadets can experience loss of interest in school or other activities and subject you to repetition of stories. If you can tolerate the retelling of events it will go a long way to helping this age group work through their feelings. You can expect moodiness, aggression or even regression from the kids with even the sweetest dispositions. It's amazing how much worry a child this age can produce! They worry about you, your spouse, the house, themselves, and (insert your favorite fear here). BE PATIENT. It's harder with this age group because if your oldest falls in this range, you will almost automatically require more of them when your spouse is gone than if your spouse were home. They will want to please you and will feel overwhelmed at times if they cannot. Strike a balance between being understanding of their feelings without becoming too permissive. Kids this age will need limits to be set and enforced and they will rely on you to reassure them their feelings are normal.
It may not surprise you that the pre-teen and high school set (12-18) will run the gamut on the emotional scale. While some will retreat into themselves; others will throw themselves into every activity imaginable to manage their inner upset. Limit testing and rebelliousness are common too. Sleeping and eating issues as well as grade problems are all possibilities. Where some parents find this age-group as the strongest challenge, many others find here their strongest ally. Providing kids this age with an outlet for their emotions will reduce stress. Helping them find a way to channel their restless energy productively can help fill their time and perhaps, keep them from trouble. If they aren't talking to you, try to provide ample opportunities for them to talk with SOMEONE. It may be a trusted coach, teacher, pastor or other relative.
The deployment roller coaster can be tiring. One thing I learned was that finding others who have been there and who assure me I'm normal went a long way to helping me believe it. When you are a Guard Spouse, finding resources like that for yourself and your children can prove challenging, but it isn't impossible. If you're personal circle is small, branch out and use resources like the internet to expand it. To that end, share your family's successful stress busters in the comments. Or, if you have concerns about your level of deployment stress, post a comment and we'll brainstorm for a productive way to manage it.
If it helps, you are not being graded on this assignment. Don't hold yourself to an unrealistic standard. Believe it or not, if things go undone on your to-do list, they will still be there tomorrow. Celebrate the small victories with your "home team" and be sure to keep your deployed spouse in the loop so the eventual reunion can go as smoothly as possible.