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Last week we focused our conversation on the challenges of reintegration and transition for spouses. This week, we will discuss specifically the challenges experienced by children.
THE EXPERIENCE OF REINTEGRATION
Hours before I boarded a bus and then a plane to take me to Kuwait, my spouse, two sons, and I sat in my office lightheartedly sharing about what to expect during my deployment to Iraq in 2003. We were masking the realities of our fears and anxieties. We had numerous conversations weeks prior to my deployment about expectations and fears. I gleaned from these conversations with my sons that they were proud of me and yet they would worry about my safety.
Children experience a myriad of feelings prior to and during their mother’s or father’s deployment;
- fear about safety of deployed parent
- concerns around the stay-at-home parent’s adjustment to “doing it alone”
- anxiety on added responsibilities at home
In light of these feelings, reintegration can be a very difficult time for children. They may eagerly anticipate reconnecting with the re-deployed parent. At the same time, the returning parent, the stay-at-home parent, and the children may have undergone significant changes during deployment.
In fact, the infant who now is a toddler, may not even know their returning parent. It is heartbreaking for a returning warrior who has not held their child for a year or more, see their toddler cling to the leg of the stay-at-home parent, because they do not know this person in uniform who so desperately wants to hold them.
All of these factors heighten the unpredictability of reintegration for everyone.
CHALLENGES OF TRANSITIONING HOME
Our family dynamics changed with each deployment. When I deployed and returned from Grenada, we did not have children. The main focus my spouse and I had was on our own adjustments as a couple. However, when I returned from another deployment, we had a 3 month old infant. As a couple and as individuals, we had to adjust how we would relate to one another as a couple and now as a family. As our children got older and we experienced numerous deployments, all four of us had to discuss roles and challenges of transitioning back into a functioning family. Our sons were an important component of our family and they deserved our attention prior to, during and following a deployment!
Families learn to adjust during a deployment in order to survive and thrive while the warrior is in harm’s way. Children develop protective measures such as;
- maintaining contact with deployed parent during the deployment via email, telephone, skype, and letter writing
- communicating with stay-at-home parent
- adapting to changing roles
- nurturing established friendships
- continuing involvement in family and school routines
Following the deployment, children can successfully navigate through the family dynamics during transition and reintegration. From my own family experience I learned that there are a variety of factors that affect the transition for the children and the reintegration of the warrior following a deployment;
- understanding that the age of the children may affect their adjustment (development stages are quite different between toddler and youth in understanding roles, expectations, and challenges)
- acknowledging family dynamics changed
- open family communication prior to deployment and maintain during the deployment
- emotional and marital stability of the parents
- parenting practices
- changes occurring in either or both parents, and the children resulting from the deployment
- satisfaction of both parents and the children with their lives and experiences during the deployment
- school or disciplinary issues experienced
- satisfaction with social activities and valued friendships
Many of the factors affecting children seemed to be linked to the parents. This is important to understand. The parents have a critical role in preparing and assisting their children through the transition and reintegration of the returning warrior back into the family. Especially if a parent has changed as a result of separation and the deployment, the children may experience stress.
Some important questions that children may ask during the transition;
- who do I turn to for advice
- what do I do if dad or mom has changed
- how will I get along with mom or dad once they get back
- what if mom and dad don’t get along
- what can I do to help fit dad or mom back into the family
- will I get more attention now that mom or dad has returned
Most children exhibit remarkable resiliency during the deployment and transition. Families that have good coping skills during the deployment and healthy expectations during the reintegration will make the necessary adjustments back to a functioning family. But, this requires work, love, patience, communication, and flexibility.
This concludes the conversation on the challenges experienced during transition and reintegration. As you consider your personal experiences or you have questions, please add to the conversation. Next week, we will review the impact of trauma on the warrior as we consider this from a whole person perspective. Additionally, as we review the realities of how trauma affects the veteran, keep in mind that as the veteran exhibits the residual effects of trauma, so does the family and community. Until then, thanks for the conversation…