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Deployments cause stress for both the service member and the family that is left behind. Regardless of the length of the deployment, the family will have to redistribute family roles (e.g., finances, the maintenance of the house and car, and the care and discipline of children). Among young families, there is a strong tendency to return to the location of their families of origin. These moves are made to reduce costs and to add to the psychological and physical support needed to keep the family going.

Many factors influence family adaptation to deployment. Each individual in the family of a deployed service member must adjust to new roles and responsibilities in addition to the "loss" through separation of their loved one(s). Disorganized families with multiple pre-existing problems and/or troubled family members tend to be at higher risk for poor adjustments during deployments and separations.

Most school age children and their families will be able to adjust to a "new normal" after the departure of a spouse or parent. However, students who have had previous social or emotional problems may continue to have serious symptoms of stress and their ability to function in the school remains compromised.

The difference between a normal and serious reaction is how long and to what degree the student exhibits adjustment problems. For example, the student who is withdrawn and goes unnoticed in a classroom may need more immediate intervention than the agitated child who is acting out. If any of the "normal" reactions to the stress of deployment persist over six weeks, then the parent/interim caregiver needs to be notified and a referral made to appropriate school, community or military services.


The following signs indicate that the student is in acute distress and needs to be referred for immediate evaluation:

  • Unfocused agitation or hysteria.
  • Disconnection from peers and adults.
  • Serious depression or withdrawal.
  • Auditory or visual hallucinations.
  • Any prolonged major change from normal functioning that continues six weeks after deployment.

Serious Stress Reactions:

  • Inability or unable to resume normal classroom assignments and activities.
  • High levels of emotions such as continued crying and intense sadness.
  • Depressed, withdrawn and non-communicative behaviors.
  • Violent or depressed feelings expressed in "dark" drawings or writings.
  • Causing intentional harm to themselves or others.
  • A significant amount of weight gain or loss in a period of weeks.
  • Reduction or loss of care about personal appearance.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse.

Acute reactions to separation generally appear within the first 24 to 48 hours. In the two weeks after the deployment, the reactions may change. Behaviors will vary depending upon the age, developmental and maturity of the child. Some children may experience a delayed reaction to the stress of separation weeks or months after their family member deploys.

More common reactions that parents and teachers might observe in children when a parent is deployed are listed below. It is helpful when teachers and counselors contact parents/interim caregivers of military students experiencing separation anxiety.

In preschool or kindergarten children you may see :

  • Clinging to people or favorite toy, blanket, etc.
  • Unexplained crying or tearfulness.
  • Change in relationship with same-age friends.
  • Choosing adults over same-age friends.
  • Increased acts of aggression toward people or things.
  • Shrinking away from people or things.
  • Sleep difficulties (nightmares, frequent waking).
  • Regressing such as toileting accidents, thumb sucking, etc.
  • Eating difficulties.

In school-age children you may see any of the signs exhibited by younger children, PLUS:

  • A rise in complaints about stomach aches, headaches, or other illnesses when nothing seems to be wrong.
  • More irritability or crabbiness.
  • Increase in school problems such as a drop in grades, an unwillingness to attend school, or odd complaints about school and/or teachers.
  • Behavior changes.

However shocked or dismayed adults may be by children's reactions, it provides an opportunity for children and adults to talk about their respective thoughts and feelings and begins a new period of adjustment in the family.