Working with Children of Deployed Military Parents

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Susannah Wood, Arie Greenleaf, and Lisa Thompson-Gillespie, in the August 2012 issue of Counseling Today (a publication of the American Counseling Association), cite Military Officer magazine: there are two-million children in United States military families today. Studies conducted by the National Military Family Association offers this information: students from military households encounter many challenges but they also possess many strengths; there are complex transitions including parental military deployment and parental combat and death; and, trauma and parental reintegration into civilian life may ensue after enlistment ends. These authors see an important role for the school counselor, but their observations are relevant to all mental health professionals.

“Separation from a parent is stressful for any child. Children from every branch of the military face the potential from being separated from a parent who is deployed either on routine training or in a combat zone. Either type of deployment can mean that the parent must leave for an extended period of time–anywhere from six months to two years.

“Both the child and his or her nondeployed family members experience several stages of deployment, including pre-deployment, deployment, sustainment, pre-reunion, and post-deployment. Each family copes differently with each stage. The pre-deployment stage is typified by the family preparing for the departure of the deployed parent. Tension resulting from the rupture of the order and security of the family dynamic is common, as are feelings of shock, disbelief, fear, anger, resentment, and anticipation of loss.”

The deployment stage occurs after the parents have left the chid–a sustainment stage lasts from the first month of deployment until the parent returns. During this interim, the family establishes a new sense of “normal.” Sometimes this sense of calm is threatened when the parent is about to return, especially if there were family problems before the deployment that have improved while the parent is away.

There is a post-deployment stage, occurring after the service person returns home. It can last from 3 to 6 months and involve renegotiating roles and responsibilities among family members. Although there can be feelings of euphoria, young children may not recognize the returning parent or may display a lack of trust for a time. Adolescents express moodiness, displeasure, and indifference.

Individual counseling interventions for children and teens may include: discussing stories of resilience; encouraging relaxation through music and sports; helping students set long-term goals for moving forward; promoting poetry; encouraging volunteerism; and limiting time spent on news media outlets.

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