The present situation in Iraq understandably is quite stressful for children of parents on active military duty. Their fears clearly are heightened by extensive media coverage of war related risks and casualties. The following are some tips and suggestions parents and teachers can use to help support children in military families.
1. Keep in touch. Help kids find ways to keep in touch with their parents overseas. E-mail and/or phone calls can be helpful, when available. Kids can also send letters and/or packages.
2. Build a scrapbook. If a parent may be out of contact for an extended period of time, help kids keep a journal, scrapbook or photo album of daily events to share with their mom or dad when they return. Pay particular attention to holidays and special occasions like birthdays, school plays or graduations. Kids will want to help parents “catch up” on these events when they return.
3. Leave comforting reminders. Some parents record themselves reading a familiar and soothing story before they leave. Others write notes or leave photographs to be opened each day or week.
4. Kids need honesty. Try to be appropriately reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises.
5. Kids need predictability. Be careful about promises to call at a certain time or come home on a specific date.
6. Schoolwork issues. Children may experience a slight decline in classroom performance while a parent is on active military duty. Children may have difficulty studying with so many other things on their mind. Other children may actually focus on schoolwork as a way to deal with their anxieties. In general, teachers should be told that a parent is on active military duty. It may help them understand any academic or behavioral changes they may see in the classroom.
7. Get in touch with other military families. Help kids make contact with other kids whose parents are on active military duty, to give them a chance to talk about their thoughts and fears.
8. Limit TV. Many children in military families are riveted to the details of daily media coverage. This can be an important and healthy reaction. Young children (e.g., pre-school and school age) should not watch war-related coverage unattended. It’s best done with a parent or other adult who can provide reassurance and/or help answer questions. Even adolescents should be encouraged to limit TV viewing. Research clearly indicates that constant exposure to war-related coverage may heighten anxiety.
9. Be available. While a parent is on active military duty, it’s particularly important for children to know that other adults, parents, teachers, relatives and friends are available to help answer questions, listen to concerns, or just be supportive.
10. Help kids express themselves. Kids of all ages may have strong feelings about the war, the government or world politics. Help them express themselves by sending letters, poems or drawings to local newspapers, radio or TV stations, or elected officials.
11. Take your cue from the child. No two children respond the same to having a parent on active military duty. Each child will react, adjust and adapt in different ways and at his or her own pace. There’s no right or wrong way to react or cope, and research indicates it’s best not to push or force a child to deal with these issues unless and until they’re ready.
12. Try to encourage kids to be kids. Of course, they’ll think and worry about a mom or dad on active duty, just as the parent will be thinking about them. But kids also need permission to focus on school, friends and the things they like to do. Let children know that they can help by taking good care of themselves.
13. Spot problems early. Monitor for physical symptoms including headaches and stomach aches. Many children express anxiety through physical aches and pains. An increase in such symptoms, without apparent medical cause, may be a sign that a child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
14. Professional evaluation. Children who are preoccupied with questions about war, fighting or terrorism should be evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Ask your child’s pediatrician, family practitioner, or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.
There’s no question that having a parent on active military duty is a significant stress for a child. Fortunately, most kids can and do cope with the experience and go on with their lives. However, by creating an open, honest, supportive and predictable environment, we can help address their fears and concerns, and reduce the risk of lasting emotional consequences.
By David Fassler
In his 40-plus-year newspaper career, George Morris has written about just about everything -- Super Bowls, evangelists, World War II veterans and ordinary people with extraordinary tales. His work has received multiple honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press and the Louisiana Press Association. He avoids debt when he can and pays it off quickly when he can't, and he's only too happy to suggest how you might do the same.