Parental deployment can be difficult for children. However, you might be surprised to find that, in recent research, most children in military families adjust to parental deployments pretty well. In fact, they even had average-to-high levels of self-esteem. This was true before, during, and after deployment, meaning that deployment alone did not affect these outcomes in a meaningful way.
One area that parental deployment does seem to affect is children’s anxiety. But this is not the entire story; it’s bigger than parental deployments. There are some personal characteristics that predispose children to be more anxious, regardless of whether or not they live in a military family. For instance, girls are more likely than boys to have anxiety symptoms, and young children tend to report greater separation anxiety than older children. Again, these are patterns well established among children generally, not just those connected to the military. It is possible that the stresses associated with deployment push children who are already at risk for anxiety (i.e., girls, younger children) to become anxious. Unsurprisingly, children’s anxiety decreased once the parent’s deployment ended. However, on average, military children still reported anxiety in the clinical range after deployment, so homecoming is not necessarily a quick fix for everything.
What can parents do to help children manage their anxiety? Glad you asked, here’s what we suggest!
1. Learn about emotions
For anyone who hasn’t yet watched the Disney Film Inside Out, try setting aside some time to do so. (It could even be a nice opportunity to spend time with your family!) The film shows us that each of our emotions serve an important role in our survival as human beings, and this idea is actually based on science. The movie teaches viewers that even emotions such as fear and anxiety are useful because they may caution us against potential dangers in the present or future. For example, in the context of deployment, some anxiety may be expected and can be considered normal. For more connections between emotions and survival, check out “Traits and Functions of the 6 Basic Emotions” on ExploringYourMind.com.
2. Know what emotions and behaviors to look for
Anxiety in children may be evident during and after deployment. But it looks different in children than adults, and can even be mistaken for willful misbehavior. Where adults might be more apt to worry aloud, a child might quietly have nightmares, or be cranky without a clear cause. To learn more about how anxiety affects children versus adults, check out “Anxiety: How is it different for kids and adults” by Pyramid Healthcare, Inc.
3. React supportively when children are emotionally vulnerable
Validate your child’s emotions by openly acknowledging them. Let your child know you see their difficulties, it is okay to have a hard time, and you are there to help when they need it. Take time to learn about emotion coaching and managing emotions to teach your child how to process their emotions.
4. Remember the big picture
- See the good. There is often a lot going right even when stress and anxiety become a challenge (e.g., few behavior problems, high self-esteem).
- Understand that managing emotions well is hard work. Children are watching what you do, not just what you teach them. As a parent, managing children’s emotions requires you to understand your own emotions. When your child says they’re feeling a certain way, try to help them identify the emotion(s) they’re experiencing while reacting in a compassionate and non-judgmental way.