It’s not uncommon for children to act out or for teens to test boundaries when a parent is away from home. The stress caused by the absence of a parent is only amplified for children of military personnel and is further exacerbated when that parent is deployed on a military mission, especially to a hostile zone.
What role can school counselors play in addressing the needs of these children? How can school counselors help students cope not only with a parent’s temporary absence but also the fear that their parent could be injured or killed in a war?
“In this unstable and transient era that we are living in, we have to, as school counselors, be much more intentional about teaching and facilitating resiliency issues, especially to the children of military members. We have to be preparing kids to be resilient,” says LaVerne Jordan, a counselor educator at Denver Seminary and a member of the American Counseling Association Task Force on Promoting Resiliency of Children in Military Families. Beyond the threat that their parents may deploy to a combat zone, she adds that children of military personnel often have some very specific issues related to relocating so frequently and never truly putting down roots.
One ACA member who understands these issues firsthand is Jackie Harriman. The self-proclaimed “Air Force brat” served in the National Guard and was deployed to Saudi Arabia. In her civilian life, she was a school counselor and a former youth coordinator for the Colorado National Guard. Today she is married to an Army soldier and continues to be employed by the federal government.
As an elementary school counselor in Colorado, Harriman worked with a high concentration of children who had parents deployed to Bosnia. Herself familiar with the emotional cycle of deployment, she helped students and families to feel supported and stay on track. Although the conflict in Bosnia took place more than a decade ago, Harriman believes the group counseling session techniques she used are timeless and can be implemented with today’s school-age military dependents.
Emotional cycle of deployment
Family members of mobilized military personnel experience a gamut of emotions. By being aware of this cycle and the emotional ramifications of each stage, school counselors and educators can lessen the impact of separation on these students and identify issues before they reach a crisis point.
Children have different reactions to a parent’s deployment depending on their age and the coping skills of the family before the military assignment, Harriman says, but certain behaviors are indicative of separation anxiety or family stress, including:
- Isolation/withdrawing from family or friends
- Acting out
- Poor grades
The emotional cycle of deployment consists of four basic stages, each with its own issues to be faced by deploying military members and their families.
The military member is notified of the assignment at this stage. From this point, it could be months or the matter of a few short days before military personnel must leave their families. Harriman notes that, at this stage, children and teens may:
- Express anger toward the parent who is leaving
- Protest and push boundaries
- Become clingy
- Withdraw or disengage from the deploying parent because, knowing the parent is leaving, spending time with him/her is too difficult
This stage takes place during the first few weeks of the parent’s absence, as the family adjusts to new routines. Children can find this stage especially difficult, Harriman says, because things seem disorganized and the stress level is high. “The family is adjusting and the kids are sensing that turmoil,” she says.
This is the time for counselors and educators to take note of dropping grades or incomplete homework assignments, Harriman says, as they may be a tip-off to larger problems. “A lot of kids will take the lead of the at-home parent and will look to them for signs,” she says, adding that if the at-home parent is depressed, then the children also may become depressed.
In the case of teenagers, she says, they may feel obligated to take on more responsibility to care for their parent and to step into a more adult role within the family. This blurred line of authority can cause problems between the parent and the teen.
Fortunately, after the first month, many families find their routine again. At this point, Harriman says, the family typically starts to stabilize.
The final stage of the cycle can actually be the most difficult, both for the family and the returning service member, Harriman points out. “Sometimes the parent who was deployed returns and feels unneeded within the household. They have to ease their way into the role they once had, and kids sense that stress, so there may be some testing or playing one parent against the other,” she says.
As the positions of authority are being readjusted, the children may need time to “warm up” to the returning parent, she says. In a worst case scenario, the family may have to deal with a loved one returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder or a physical disability. Those cases offer their own challenges, Harriman says.
Communication is key
To assist these children and teens, school counselors and educators must first be informed of the deployment, which is often not brought to light until after the student is in crisis.
“One of the problems we see is that parents often don’t tell the schools about the deployment,” Harriman says. “Communication between the parents and the school is really important. Schools want to help as long as they know what’s going on. That’s an area that needs improvement.” She suggests that teachers and counselors ask students if they have parents in the military and then contact those parents directly to establish open lines of communication about current or future deployments. Teachers and counselors can then monitor those children more closely and be better prepared for early interventions if red flags arise.
Additionally, having this information provides school counselors the opportunity to make one-on-one contact with these students or to establish group sessions specifically for military students, which is what Harriman did for her elementary students. Once a week during school hours, she met with all the students of deployed military personnel. The group sessions allowed her to more closely monitor their emotions, while providing the students with activities that helped them track the time until their parents returned.
“I taught them coping skills, relaxation techniques and talked to them about responsibility and viewing the family as a team,” she says. “I would ask them, ‘What have you done this week to help your mom or dad?’ I tried to get them to think that we are all in this together.” The students were also encouraged to talk about the country where their parent was deployed, often bringing in items for show-and-tell.
Harriman would ask students about their initial reaction to hearing the news of their parent’s deployment. “What was really interesting was for all the kids to see that their feelings were normal and other kids felt those emotions too,” she says, adding that many of the students felt angry at first. “Then they felt guilty about feeling angry, but by talking about those emotions, it allowed them to relate to each other and also helped them find other, more positive ways to cope with their emotions instead of internalizing or acting out.”
Every week, Harriman presented a different activity for the students to work on and share with their families. They wrote letters and collected items for a memory book so they would have plenty to talk about when their deployed parent called or returned home. Keeping a journal or scrapbook helps students with the time line for a parent’s return and also fills in the gaps of what the deployed parent missed, Harriman says. Older students may want to keep a video journal or blog for a parent who is deployed abroad.
The group also helped Harriman connect with the at-home parents so she could ensure they were getting the support they needed. She points out that school counselors should learn about military family support programs in the area so counselors can refer the families for additional care. Most military installations have family support centers, mental health clinicians and school liaison officers to help military parents and students through times of transition.
Harriman says school counselors have some differences to consider depending on if the child’s military parent is active duty or in the Reserves. Oftentimes, she points out, active duty military families will not have extended family members nearby, while members of the Reserves or National Guard are much more likely to be stationed in their hometown. Regardless, school counselors can encourage military families to identify friends or family members in the area who can help out and take some of the stress off the single parent.
Another consideration is that those in the Reserves and National Guard are “suddenly military” when deployed. Leaving their civilian jobs, even temporarily, can cause great financial stress on their families. Additionally, the family may be a long distance from the nearest military base and unable to easily access government-provided assistance.
Says Harriman, “Part of the culture (of military families) is ‘I’m strong and I can pull myself up by my bootstraps and do this on my own’ — until they hit a crisis and then need real help. We need to offer preventative measures to these families to help them deal with things before issues arise.”
Harriman established relationships by calling each parent weekly and explaining what the students had done in the group meeting. “Over time and continuing to do that, I started to become a regular voice to the parents, and they felt comfortable reaching out to me for things,” she says. “School counselors are really busy people, but a five-minute phone call to the parents of those children can really make a difference.”
Harriman suggests school counselors be proactive about reaching out to military families first, perhaps by hosting a potluck lunch at the school or an evening meet-and-greet. Counselors may also want to invite representatives from military family support organizations to PTA meetings to talk about the effects of the emotional cycle of deployment on families and children.
Harriman says it’s also beneficial for counselors to try to stay in contact with the deployed military member. School counselors can ask the parent or caregiver at home to leave stamped, self-addressed envelopes with the school so newsletters, artwork or positive progress reports about the student can be mailed to the deployed parent.
Because of the itinerant nature of military life, mandatory classes and graduation requirements are sometimes another issue for these students. Many times, Harriman says schools are very rigid in their requirements, but some flexibility may be in the best interest of the military child.
Furthermore, she says, school staff and administration should remain neutral as far as expressing personal views on military involvement and politics. “When you are not connected to the war, you have opinions about it. I don’t want to attack the civilian population, but I think there are a lot of people in the civilian world who don’t understand what these families are going through,” Harriman says. “This isn’t the same as a business trip. This is a trip where people are getting shot at. There are totally different stressors. The war itself is so volatile and it’s like the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, but these families are living it day after day. It’s not about special treatment for these kids but just leveling the playing field.”
Deployment activities for students
The North Carolina Public School System, in conjunction with the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction, has developed a website dedicated to supporting military children. At www.ncpublicschools.org/militarysupport, educators can find several suggestions for classroom or group counseling activities. Here are just a few:
- Put together a “Proud to Be a Military Kid” bulletin board and encourage students to display pictures of military family members.
- Arrange a field trip to a nearby military base or training facility.
- Make a memory book or calendar reflecting positive thoughts and actions while a loved one is deployed.
- Write cards or letters to the deployed family member.
- Have a deployed family member pen pal program. Ask parents to send postcards, maps, stamps, coins, menus or information and articles that describe the foreign duty station, port and so forth, and then use them for lessons.
- Turn a shoebox into a deployment time capsule. At the beginning of the deployment, fill the box with items such as a piece of string as long as the child’s height, a tracing of the child’s hand or foot and a list of the child’s favorites (song, candy bar, TV show, toy, etc.). Open them when the deployed parent returns to measure changes that have occurred.
- Ask more experienced military students to assist those students who have little or no experience with deployments.
— Angela Kennedy
- The National Military Family Association offers two free PDF downloads, “Support to Civilian Schools Educating Military Children” and “Working With Military Children — A Primer for School Personnel,” both available at www.nmfa.org.
- Military Teen on the Move, www.defenselink.mil/mtom, is a support and helpful tip website for teens and tweens dealing with moving … again.
- The Department of Defense Military Student website, www.militarystudent.dod.mil, offers an abundance of information, tools and resources to help parents, leaders and educators meet the unique needs of military children. “The Educator’s Guide to the Military Child During Deployment” can also be downloaded for free from the website.
- Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, has partnered with the New York Office of Mental Health and
- Military Child Education Coalition to develop “Talk, Listen, Connect,” an outreach initiative to help young children of members of the U.S. Armed Services, National Guard and Reserves cope with the feelings, challenges and concerns they experience during various phases of deployment. Call Military One Source (www.militaryonesource.com) at 800.342.9647 for a free DVD to use with students ages 3-5.
— Angela Kennedy