Kids are going to say what they are going to say when they want to say it. The trouble is I have no idea what I am supposed to say in return--especially when it comes to deployment.
When I had a ten-year-old tell me that he was afraid extremists were going to come to the United States and kill his mom, I fumbled for a reply and wondered what I should have said instead.
So I contacted Patricia Lester, a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist whose work is dedicated to families facing the impact of military deployments. When I met her at the 2014 MOAA Warrior-Family Symposium, Dr. Lester had that calm, centered, normal-person thing going that you like to see in a mental health professional. Dr. Lester shared these ideas in her email that I would like to pass along to you:
Fears for the at-home parent are normal.In their research and service work with the families of the deployed, Dr. Lester and her team have often heard that kids are just as concerned about losing their at-home parent as their deployed parent.
“The 10-year-old you described shares a familiar worry about safety. Concerns about danger and safety often generalize for younger and school age children, and lead to worries about the safety of their own parents and family-- as well as to concern about whether anyone will be there to care for them. “
Tell me your worries, Honey.“For children, it often helps for parents to let them know that these are "open" conversations in the family,” said Lester. Make sure your kids know that it is OK to ask about their worries-- even worries about death/dying. “Many children will not raise concerns or questions as they don't want to stress an already stressed caregiver,” Lester said.
We are here to protect each other.“For younger and school age children, we try to help them put risk into context-- and help parents talk about concrete ways that their parent, military, and community takes measures to ensure safety,” said Lester. This would include talking about security systems, emergency preparedness, the role of the police, the fire department and the military in protecting our communities.
Safety for the deployed parent, too.Kids need to have some assurance that the deployed parent is trying to stay safe, too. “We may have a parent talk about specific equipment that keeps them safe when deployed as well as about all the training they do to prepare them for their job,” said Lester. “We find it is also helpful for children to be aware of how a deployed service member's unit/buddies keep each other safe-- and this is part of their training.”
Offer more than words.Lester said that it is important not to dismiss a child's fears, but to be able to talk about them. “If children are just reassured without some information/context, they may imagine very scary scenarios,” said Lester. Show your child how you handle your own worries—talking about them with a trusted friend, exercising, using a journal, setting a timer. Kids will follow your lead.
Limit exposure to media.In addition to limiting your child’s exposure to media (as much as possible in this day and age), try to expand this conversation in your community.
“It may be useful to engage the child's school/teachers in this larger discussion so that the school can be better attuned to how activating these news stories are for children, especially military kids,” said Lester.
Watch for rumination.Sometimes we don’t have all the tools at home to help a particular child with their worries. Know that it is time to get some outside help when your child’s worries interfere with their daily life in the family, at school, with friends. Get some outside help when you and your service member fight about what you should do. Get some outside help when you get to that moment that you don’t know what else to do. Start with Military OneSource 1-800-342-9647.
Our older kids and teens don't always tell us what they worries them. We do have the tools to help them when they need us--which is more often than we sometimes think.
Photo courtesy US Navy