Childrens' Reactions to Deployment Vary

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Keita Franklin said she's often asked how children react to war, and she called it a "loaded question," noting that reactions depend on the individual child and any pre-existing vulnerabilities.

Some children do very well, she added.

"What I will tell you is that the normal sort of childhood trials and tribulations of parenting are all cranked up a notch," she told attendees at the conference hosted by the Pentagon's office of military community and family policy.

Children with a deployed parent may become increasingly clingy or whiny, cry more, exhibit aggressive behavior, and have a greater fear of separation, Franklin said. But, she reminded the group, war affects every child differently, and a child's reaction to one deployment will not necessarily be the same reaction he or she has to subsequent deployments.

Researchers have been able to isolate a correlation between repeat deployments and family stressors, as well as with behavioral problems in children, she said. "All of this becomes a 'feedback loop.'"

A child has behavioral problems, she explained, and then another parental deployment causes a higher level of stress, and then the behavioral problems can increase. "So, you can see how the cycle continues," Franklin said.

In addition, a parent's behavior can influence a child's reaction through what Franklin called "transgenerational transmission of trauma" -- children being raised by parents who have been exposed to severe situations of trauma and adopt some of those symptoms themselves.

There's little research on this idea, Franklin said, but some comparisons can be made by looking at the effects of depression on children since traumatic stress and depression often present similar symptoms. And just as the absence of a parent can affect a child, she noted, so can the parent's return, especially if the returning parent is exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some of those symptoms include irritability, hypervigilance, avoidance or emotional numbness. Early intervention is the key to helping the servicemember cope with those feelings as well as keeping those feelings from affecting children in the family, Franklin said, possibly averting "a full-blown diagnostic issue."

While Franklin's discussion included children of all ages, she read a letter from the son of a Vietnam veteran who was just a toddler when his father returned with signs of what is now called post-traumatic stress. His father was always angry and emotionally detached from the family.

"I share that with you because he says he was a toddler, and toddlers are the age group you are often dealing with," Franklin told the conferees. "Even though this person was a toddler, he's now an adult child reflecting on that experience. So, PTSD does have something to do with the mental health needs of children."

No one understands this in quite the same way as those with the Zero to Three organization.

With the mission of promoting the health and development of infants and toddlers, Zero to Three doesn't interact directly with parents, but rather provides training and guidance to those who do. For military children, the group's focus is resilience, said Colleen Legasse of Zero to Three's military projects department.

"We know that young children feel the spectrum of emotions that adults do [and] that older children do," she said.

She told the conferees that certain changes are normal during a deployment. Some children's eating and sleeping habits change, or they express anger toward the deployed parent. They may even refuse to come to the phone or computer to say hello to the deployed parent, Legasse said.

And much as it is for older children, homecomings aren't always as smooth as the parent or caregiver at home hopes they'll be.

"I think it's important to think of homecomings as very stressful as well," Legasse said.

Depending on the age of the child and the length of the deployment, young military children may have never met their returning parent before. Some may have been so young when the parent deployed that they don't remember them. And if a parent returns injured, temporarily or permanently, it can be traumatic for a young child who remembers Mom or Dad a certain way.

Caregivers can help to ease their young charges' stress by helping them build secure attachments, helping them maintain a schedule and to understand what's happening in an age-appropriate manner, and helping them gauge their reactions to stressful events.

Zero to Three offers resources for caregivers of military children on its Web site.