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Military Children, Deployment and Mental Health Care

There are more than 1.2 million U.S. military children between the ages of zero and 23 years old. Their lives are filled with the inherent danger of military operations, frequent moves, intermittent separation, the threat of a terrorist attack, and dramatic and graphic television coverage of military conflict. Children of active duty service members are potentially at a higher risk to develop mental health conditions common among children in the general population.

Some indicators of potential difficulties include preceding family dysfunction, mental health issues, special needs children, particular closeness to the deployed parent, and recent family relocation with limited or no support systems in place. Two childhood mental health conditions that are especially problematic to military families are obsessive-compulsive disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. The latter condition is a significant problem when military families want to relocate overseas because this disorder in a child can disqualify them from an overseas assignment.

Military children are subjected to an emotional cycle of deployment. The signs and symptoms that indicate potential problems vary with each age group.

  • Among infants, irritability, difficulties with comforting by self or caregiver, sleep and eating disturbances are common indicators.
  • Preschool and kindergarten children may start clinging to people, a favorite toy or a blanket. They may have periods of unexplained crying or tearfulness, may choose adults over same-age friends, may show increased violence toward people or things, start distancing themselves from people, become quieter, have difficulties eating and sleeping, and show regression in behaviors such as bed wetting.
  • School aged children may, in addition to the above, present with changes in behavior, stomach aches, headaches, irritability, school problems, school avoidance and fights.
  • Adolescents may, in addition to the above, begin acting out behaviors (trouble at school or home, or with the law), as well as present with low self-esteem and self-criticism, misdirected anger (excess anger over small incidents), depression and anxiety. They may tend to downplay their worries.

Suggested Activities

For the deploying parent, it is recommended he or she talk and share feelings with the child about separation, discuss ways to keep in touch, plan a special activity before deployment, swap important personal belongings with the child to keep during separation, and take family pictures and/or tape a favorite story. Communication with the deployed parent should be encouraged, and the deployed parent should be encouraged to send separate letters to each child.

The non-deployed parent or guardian must maintain routines and discipline while being reassuring. They should listen, discuss feelings, answer questions honestly and dispel rumors. He or she should provide age-appropriate explanations, encourage communication and allow the child to talk. The parent should also monitor the amount of time the child watches news, and should discuss the news with the child, ask about what the child heard and what questions the child may have, as well as provide reassurance and a sense of safety, and look for signs of fear and anxiety.

Non-deployed parents need support as well. They have real issues related to the deployment and the risks to which the deployed family member is exposed. It is important he or she stay physically and mentally healthy. The reunification of the family can present challenges and requires preparation. Children and spouses have changed and family roles may have to be redefined.

To successfully face and resolve the challenges through the different phases of deployment, the family may need to use external resources for support. For your benefit and use, some of them have been included below.

  • Military family centers – Army Community Service Centers (ACS), Family Service Center (FSC) (Navy, Marines, Coast Guard), Family Support Center (FSC) (Air Force).
  • Resources within military installations – family centers, family support groups, legal assistance office, chaplain’s office, pediatric clinic (primary care clinics), mental health clinic, social work services. These resources provide reliable information during deployments and promote the opportunity to build relationships with others who share common interests. The school system is another source of support and information for families.

Advocate the Use of Outpatient Mental Health Visits

Providers should direct children who may be suffering from any type of mental health problem toward treatment via the outpatient mental health visits. Visit our outpatient mental health benefits page to learn more about the services TRICARE covers.

Even if you merely suspect that a child has a mental health problem, there is no obligation to continue treatment beyond the initial consultation, so it is important for the child to meet with a qualified provider.

If possible, help direct the child to an age-specific provider who specializes in the type of disorder you believe he or she may have. Be careful to select a provider in the TRICARE network. Otherwise, TRICARE Prime families will incur additional charges under the TRICARE Prime point-of-service option.

Referrals to Case Management

If you think a beneficiary needs assistance coordinating health care services, improving quality of life or getting information on his or her medical condition or disease, refer him or her to case management. Visit our case management page to learn how to make a referral to our program.

Helpful Websites for Military Families