Resilient kids, ready Airmen
By Shireen Bedi, Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
/ Published September 11, 2018
FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- One thing Airmen worry about when they deploy is the well-being of their family, especially children who may have a hard time coping with the challenges that come with a parent’s deployment.
The impact of deployment on children is a key component of Airmen readiness. Knowing their family is well helps Airmen focus on the mission.
“I think a child’s well-being is directly related to readiness,” said Lt. Col. Eric Flake, program director of developmental pediatrics at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. “If the child is not doing well, it can be a significant impediment to an Airman’s readiness.”
According to Flake, most military children are resilient and can adjust to the changes that come when a parent deploys, but some children face challenges. Lt. Col. Eric Oglesbee, education and developmental intervention services clinic flight commander at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, agrees.
“Generally speaking, deployment alone does not significantly upset the child,” said Oglesbee. “However, it could worsen any pre-existing issues the child may have.”
Deployment can add stressors to children with a higher risk of developmental disorders or issues. This can lead to behavioral problems or additional medical problems.
“Deployment can be very displacing for a child especially when the child has to move due to a parent’s deployment,” said Oglesbee. “This tends to happen with single-parent households, particularly those families who are overseas. The move combined with giving up your parent can be stressful and undermine an essential sense of security that children need. The effects of deployment are further compounded if the child has specific mental health needs or a disability.”
The psychological impact of deployment on a child can show up in their academic performance. According to Oglesbee, children may act up in school, engage in disruptive behavior, or get into conflicts. Flake breaks down the impact of deployment by age group.
“Younger children demonstrate frustration nonverbally through things like stomach aches, headaches, or they will have more reactive behaviors,” said Flake. “As children get older, they start to verbalize their frustration and discomfort, or engage in behaviors that are atypical for the child. Adolescents can either become withdrawn or can engage in more high-risk behaviors.”
As Flake explains, it is not always easy to pin down if a child’s distress is due to the deployment or other stressors in his or her life. In those times, it is important for families to seek help. In the Air Force and across the DoD, military children and families have access to several forms of support.
“One of the best things the Air Force has done is the focus on resilience of the child and the family,” said Flake. “It is important we are able to recognize what resiliency looks like, and celebrate families and their importance to the mission.”
Families can also find resources within their community to help them during a deployment. Military children also have access to additional support if they are struggling to cope with a parent’s deployment.
“In the DoD Education Activity schools, they have deployed kids clubs, which are run by school counselors,” said Oglesbee. “These school counselors tend to be very sensitive to the issue of deployment and they want to support children whose parents have deployed.”
Counseling sessions can also be helpful for families that need support. Air Force mental health providers know the difficulties families face during deployment and are effective in talking about those difficulties.
“Some families are reluctant to get help because of the stigma attached to seeing a mental health professional,” said Oglesbee. “But really, it is more like a mediated conversation with a professional who has the right vocabulary and is sensitive to the issues surrounding deployment. This is especially important since many children do not have the expressive language to clearly articulate what is going on with them.”
In addition to these services, the Air Force is actively engaged in research to improve the ways they can identify families who may be struggling and provide them with support in a more timely fashion.
“We use general screeners to identify general levels of stress in the families,” said Flake. “What we have found is that providing good, stable childcare as well as educational experiences for the child are very helpful during deployment.
“We want to provide meaningful support so Airmen can feel confident that their children and families are taken care of.”