This is a sponsored guest post.
Welcoming a service member back home is one of the most emotional moments that a family can go through. In the weeks leading up to the big day, you might experience a rollercoaster of emotions, going from exhilaration and relief to stress and anxiety.
You are not alone. Mothers of service members all across America are all too familiar with these emotional reunions and their ups and downs. In many cases, the service member requires a period of adjustment to their old lives, they need time to process the traumatic experiences they lived in the war zones they were deployed and heal both physically and mentally. With love and patience, couples can overcome the challenges of military service and enjoy their family life after the reunion. However, if you have children, preparation should include some extra steps. In their Guide for Families of Military Members, the National Center for PTSD points of the main issues with returning from the war zone and useful advice on how service member parents can reconnect with their children.
Children of different ages have specific reactions to returning service members
Not all children react the same when their father returns home from the war zone. Depending on how old they were when the parent left and how they are now the parent is coming back, they will have their own understanding of military deployment.
- Infants and toddlers of up to three years may be too young to recognize their father and after reuniting with them they might react by crying, throwing tantrums and refusing to be alone with him. They can also be indifferent to the parent, ignore them when he tries to play, or display a clear preference for the mom. If you are returning to work and the father stays at home, the child can display the signs of separation anxiety, which can be heart-wrenching for the father, who feels left out.
- Pre-schoolers and schoolers usually remember the moment of deployment and, thinking it happened because “they were bad”, fear the father’s return, imagining they will be punished. Also, preschoolers and schoolers can be angry or mad. At the opposite ends are children who are overly clingy, ask the returning member too many uncomfortable questions and do not leave them any personal space to readjust.
- Teenagers (13 to 18 years) can be most difficult to deal with because, even though they understand the complexity of military service at least partially, they are going through a period of emotional transition themselves. Teenagers can mask their anxiety as indifference, ignoring the returning father and pretending like they don’t care. Worried that the rules may change or that they’re not loved as much, they can feel stressed, bottle up their feelings and display a hostile attitude.
How to prepare your child for the return
Sometimes, reunions are equally stressful and beautiful. It may take a while until you all reach a balance, but you can make the transition period by communicating with your child and explain to them, from a level they can understand, what they should expect once their father returns.
You don’t want your child to perceive reunion as a shock. Whenever possible, have video calls so they stay in touch with their father. Answer their questions about military service and encourage them to talk about their feelings. Reassure them that it’s normal to feel scared and nervous, but that their father loves them just as much and that the reunion will not affect your feelings for them either. Some children feel neglected in the days leading up to the reunion because mothers have their own worries as well, so try to maintain physical closeness and not isolate yourself.
In the more delicate cases, the returning service member can have physical injuries or even a disability. Talk to your child openly about these injuries, so that they know what to expect, but set some ground rules about what they should and shouldn’t do around them.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is, unfortunately, a harsh reality of post-reunion life. According to the latest data, more than 30% of military service members develop a form of PTSD after homecoming because they were exposed to traumatic events. The symptoms, which manifest in many ways, from irregular sleep to panic attacks and behavioral changes, can be very confusing for your child, making them have a hostile attitude towards the parent. They can misinterpret the source of the symptoms, believe that it’s because of them, so they will be afraid of their father and start avoiding them. Try to explain to your child that this is not happening because of them, that you all need to reconnect and that they should try to be loving and supportive.
Know when to seek help
After your spouse comes back home, try to spend a lot of quality family time to get back into the swing of things and reconnect emotionally. Each family is different, so don’t try to rush things. Expect some resistance from the child and understand that they might need more than a couple of weeks to regrow their connection. In some cases, things evolve on their own and the family manages to find its own rhythm soon after homecoming. In others, you may need help from the outside. For example, if your service member went through a lot when he was away and the symptoms of PTSD are so severe that they interfere with daily life, you might want to recommend professional counseling for veterans or maybe even holistic rehabs if they have resorted to drug or alcohol use to cope with the trauma.
Sometimes, all family members find it hard to readapt to the new life, which is where family counseling comes in. Check if there are dedicated facilities for military families in your areas where you can have family counseling or go on a retreat together to rekindle your old relationship.