Helping Children through a Parent's Deployment: Preventing the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

By Rudden, Marie G. | The Exceptional Parent, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Helping Children through a Parent's Deployment: Preventing the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma


Rudden, Marie G., The Exceptional Parent


Life can be quite stressful for a family in which a parent has been deployed. In fact, a recent study by Christopher Warner, MD, MAJ, MC, U.S. Army, and others from Winn Army Community Hospital at Fort Stewart, GA found that spouses of deployed Soldiers experienced high stress levels, and that 43 percent of spouses who responded to their questionnaire were significantly depressed. Warner's group found that 90 percent of parents left behind struggled with fears for their spouse's safety and with loneliness. Finances have to be managed alone, and the remaining parent has to assume the responsibility of all health issues and decisions about child-rearing and discipline without the other's daily emotional and practical support. When the spouse at home needs to discuss a financial problem or get help in understanding a child's challenging behavior or illness, he or she may feel reluctant to burden the servicemember, who is facing life and death struggles far away. Resentment about shouldering burdens alone can erupt, however, and the difficult conversations that ensue can leave both servicemember and stay-at-home parent feeling guilty, helpless, and angry. Children who miss their parent and are fearful for the parent's welfare may sense parental stress and unhappiness and respond in ways that the parents have difficulty interpreting and can react to with anger. It is a sad fact that, in the face of such stress and parental depression, it is often a struggle for the remaining parent to respond to the children's needs. There is a higher level of child abuse or neglect in families left at home during a parent's deployment, with 42 percent more reported cases than average.

Communication Is Essential

Despite the grim statistics, most military families are resilient and struggle to cope with the deployment in various ways. They develop new traditions around phone calls, letters, and packages sent to their deployed servicemember and strive to maintain regular and predictable routines. For parents struggling to help their children cope with the other parent's absence, tactful communication about the separation is essential. To optimize communication with the child, it is useful to understand that children experience and make sense of deployment in a way that is quite different from adults. If parents can learn to understand their child's perspective on the stressful events, they will be better prepared to help the child through the anxieties of the deployment period. This, in turn, will help the child to maintain a sense of security rather than to act out the distress, which only further disrupts the family.

An essential aspect of understanding the child's perspective is to listen for the subtext behind his or her questions and concerns. Children can be refreshingly direct but also may communicate their reactions indirectly in the questions that they ask, through changes in their behavior, and through their drawings and play. Sometimes paying careful attention to what they communicate in these ways helps the parents understand how their children are processing information about the new situation.

Understand That Your Child May See The Situation Differently Than You

As an example of how differently a child may understand what is happening within the family, consider Vanessa, a nine-year-old girl who is quite attached to her father, Ray. Vanessa noticed considerable tension between her parents shortly before her father's deployment to Iraq. While her parents knew that this was an expectable reaction to the stressful pre-deployment period, Vanessa did not, and she began to fear that her parents would divorce from all the stress and that Ray would never come home. This added considerably to her misery about the separation and to her fear that Ray might be hurt in combat. Not wishing to worry their daughter, Ray and his wife, Patti, spoke little about the tension or about the changes that would happen within the family with his absence.

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