The following is a guide that describes behaviors students may display as they react to a parent's or caregiver's deployment. We also encourage educators to view our 4Real Videos to get a first-hand account of children's reactions.
General Student Reactions
- As in response to any stress, expect students to regress. They will retreat back into "old" behaviors that you thought they had long outgrown.
- Students' ability to regulate or handle their emotions may fluctuate. They may get moody, irritable, lash out or withdraw. They may be easily frustrated and show emotional meltdowns to minor incidents that they easily handled previously.
- Somatic symptoms often occur as students adjust to both their parent's departure and return. Younger students in particular may complain of headaches or stomachaches. Be mindful that any age student may not be sleeping or eating well and may have low energy levels.
Preschooler (ages 3 - 5) Behaviors
Throughout the deployment cycle preschoolers will be more emotional with more frequent temper tantrums.
They will react to the mood and heightened emotions of parents or the caretaker at home. Will mimic or copy the behaviors and emotions they see at home.
They won't understand 'leaving' or 'coming back' and have no sense of the length of time parent will be gone.
They may experience more nightmares or be fearful of war-related concepts that they have heard ('bad guys').
Preschoolers will worry that the remaining caretaker will leave them also and may develop separation anxiety behaviors. Will think they did something wrong to cause parent to leave.
Changes in their daily routine will be met with resistance and confusion. Preschoolers will act out their confusion, fears and misperceptions during play time.
Preschoolers will be excited about parent's return as they react to the homecoming planning at home. However, they will be easily confused by all the emotions at home (which they'll act out at school). Will want to talk frequently about the parent as they seek extra attention from school staff.
Depending on their age and length of their parent's deployment — preschoolers may be shy or even intimidated by the returning parent.
Red flags of concern for preschoolers would be high levels of aggression or an inability to return to previous level of functioning after 6 to 8 weeks.
School-age Student (6 - 12 year-old) Behaviors
Before deployment school-age students will have a clear understanding of their parent's impending departure with sadness, worry and often anger regarding the deployment. They will be proud of their parent's service and sacrifice and may take pride in their own 'service' as the child of a military member.
Younger students may believe they are at fault for their parent leaving and often maintain this perception despite repeated reassurances from parents and teachers.
School aged children will acutely feel the loss of their parent's absence. They will be aware of the special occasions and milestones their caregiver is missing and may react with sadness, anger and resentment.
They will worry about their deployed parent's safety, finances and even the at-home caregiver's extra responsibilities or additional stress. Children often want to take on new responsibilities to contribute to the household and may need help in balancing these new roles with school responsibilities.
Fluctuations in grades may be expected as a result of the parent's deployment.
Upon return of their parent the student may be somewhat ambivalent, with a reluctance to re-engage due to fear of another deployment.
Children will be stressed with the changes that the returning parent will bring with them. Integrating a parent back into the family routine has been cited as one of the toughest challenges for children to cope with when it comes to a parent's deployment.
Red flags of concern for school-age students would be high levels of aggression or violence, school refusal, and sustained changes to level of functioning.
Teenager (ages 13 - 17) Behaviors
Many teens will often have 'adult-like' reactions to news of the deployment and seem to take the deployment in stride. Many students have been through this before with deployments being 'normal' for their lives. However, teens may also mask their sadness, sense of loss or even resentment with an "I don't care attitude" and withdrawal from the family.
Teenagers may argue more, both at home and school, to avoid their feelings about deployment.
When a deployment is imminent, expect teenagers to 'disengage' from the family by spending more time with their friends/peers.
Teenage students often readily agree to 'step up' or take on a variety of new responsibilities during the deployment. As a result, school grades often fluctuate as the teen adjusts to these additional responsibilities and new routines.
Many teenagers become increasingly independent and self-confident, excelling in the additional roles and duties given to them due to their parent's absence.
In some circumstances teenagers often feel protective of their at-home caregiver and will not be comfortable sharing their own worries or concerns at home.
Teenagers may display more negative behaviors, such as anger, apathy and acting-out. For some families, discipline and supervision levels will change with the shift in family structure during the deployment.
Teenage students may act indifferent to their parent's return. Some students will be reluctant to give up new-found freedoms and even their additional responsibilities. Some teens may worry over not meeting expectations of the returning parent.
Teens will be very aware of changes in the returning parent (emotional and physical) and will worry about the impact of those changes on the teen's life.
Red flags for concern with teenagers would be high levels of aggression or violence, suicidal ideation or self-harm, complete withdrawal or sustained changes in grades, mood, appetite or sleep.
The National Center for Telehealth and Technology.(n.d.). Families with Kids. Retrieved May 23, 2011 from AfterDeployment http://www.afterdeployment.dcoe.mil/topics-families-kids.
Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress.(n.d.). Courage to care: helping children cope during deployment. retrieved May 30, 2011 from http://www.cstsonline.org/wp-content/resources/CTC_children_helping_during_deployment.pdf.
Levin, D. & Daynard, C. (2005). The "So Far" guide for helping children and youth cope with the deployment of a parent in the military Reserves.Psychoanalytic Couple and Family Institute of New England. Retrieved May 10, 2011 from http://www.k12.wa.us/operationmilitarykids/pubdocs/SofarPAMPHLETFINALMay06.pdf.
National Military Family Association.(2010). Military Kids Toolkis. Alexandria, VA; Author.
Sherman, M., Bowling, U., Anderson, J. & Wyche, K. (2010). Veteran Parent Toolkit. Retrieved April 6, 2011 from http://www.ouhsc.edu/VetParenting.
University of Michigan Depression Center. (2009). Welcome Back Parenting. Retrieved May 27, 2011 from http://www.welcomebackparenting.org.