Military children, teens must cope with military moves, deployments
Army children are at a slightly higher risk for mental disorders, but they’re also incredibly resilient, say mental health and education experts.
As children and teens continue to cope with the fallout of frequent moves, uncertainty, and parents who have deployed multiple times and may face physical or invisible wounds themselves, it’s the people who see them most frequently – their educators and especially parents – who are most likely to recognize a problem, said Dr. Paula K. Rauch, the director of the Family Support and Outreach Program with the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Rauch spoke during an AUSA Family Forum presentation at the Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition.
"Parents are the experts on their own children," she said.
Adding, "Because development is so variable child to child, it’s the people who know a child best who are likely to be able to intervene most quickly. They’re the ones who quickly recognize ‘This might be fine for someone else’s child, but this is not normal behavior for my child.’"
Parents shouldn’t expect children to respond or act the way adults would in similar situations, she added, explaining that something that may seem as simple as changing schools can be deeply traumatic to some children.
In fact, depression can express itself as rage and anger in teenagers, said Col. Steve Cozza, USA, Ret., a professor of psychiatry and associate director of the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University.
Parents may not realize their children need help until it’s too late.
That’s particularly troubling, Rauch and Cozza agreed, because a recent study found that as many as 30 percent of teenagers have had suicidal thoughts.
That number is slightly higher for military children.
No one should look at those figures as solely a military problem, however, Rauch said.
Compounding the problem is a nationwide shortage of mental health services for children.
Col. Rebecca Porter, commander of Dunham Health Clinic at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., said tele-behavioral health is becoming more available, in part to offset that shortage.
She said the Army Surgeon General is adding a child and family behavioral health service to its behavioral health service line over the next three years.
It includes "intervention in consultation with primary care providers.
So many behavioral health needs that come into our treatment facilities come in through primary care.
They don’t start in specialty care clinics," Porter said.
Another component of the new program involves community outreach. Behavioral health providers will be available in the schools and on installations to work with educators. When teachers – who spend all day with children – notice changes in behavior, "there can be some professionals right there to consult with," Porter said.
While military children face greater stressors and challenges as a result of their military lifestyle, no one should treat military children as victims, Cozza said, saying that military life actually provides a lot of advantages.
"I think it’s an important point that we not miss that many of these military kids view their military lifestyle as an asset and a key differentiator," said Julie Broad of the Army Resiliency Directorate’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program.
Adding, "As the world becomes flatter, whether we’re an adolescent or an adult, anything in our lives that brings mental agility and adaptability is a great asset and a great skill for us. I think today’s military teens certainly know that this is something that can be capitalized upon."
Soldiers found the program’s resiliency training so helpful they asked for a similar program for their families, and the Resilient Teen Pilot includes a series of performance enhancements and learning enhancement skills.
The program is also working with teenagers who are about to go to college or who have just started college to talk about study skills, energy management and how to adjust to leaving home.
"When I meet with teens across the country and talk about the skills that they’re learning and the common language that they’re using, I think that we’re at a paradigm shift where the Army’s investment in resilience skills is making its way to the dining room table," said Broad.
Adding, "When I look at these Army teens and I look at them in the eye and I see the strength that they have, there’s no doubt in my mind that these are going to be the future military and civilian leaders for the next generation."