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Help military families cope during holiday separation
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Separation from loved ones is a fact of life for military families, but the holiday season can be especially tough for children and parents.
The uncertainty of dangerous conflict only adds to the stress of separation.
Louise Davis, a Mississippi State University Extension Service child and family development specialist, said civilian families can take several steps to ease the difficulty of the season for families directly affected by military deployment.
"It is important for non-military families to remember those who are spending the holidays without their parents, children or other family members," Davis said. "Reaching out to these families will make the holidays happier while emphasizing the true purpose of the holiday season."
Inviting a military family to share Christmas dinner can help ease the anxiety and provide a time to relax and enjoy the holiday season. Donating calling cards, baby-sitting services and other necessities also can make the holidays more enjoyable for these families.
"It's important to take a moment in our busy holiday schedules to think about other people who may be struggling with typical holiday stressors -- financial, emotional and social strain -- without the support of a spouse," Davis explained. "It isn't until we're faced with this kind of situation that we realize how difficult it actually is."
Children with parents deployed are especially vulnerable during the holiday season to feelings of loneliness and fear. Davis said it is important to acknowledge those feelings and encourage the child to express them, rather than suppressing the emotions.
"Parents can help children feel secure by giving extra hugs and spending extra time with them. For instance, taking a few extra moments putting children to bed at night can help ease their concerns," Davis said. "Parents need to continually respond to their children's needs and repeatedly assure them they are loved and their feelings are important."
The at-home parent in a military family should pay attention to and note any changes in a child's behavior, such as lashing out in anger or frustration, becoming quiet and withdrawn, retreating to behaviors shown at a younger age, exhibiting symptoms of illness or refusing to be out of the parent's sight. When children exhibit such behaviors, they usually are craving attention, Davis said.
"Seek the help of a professional counselor if you feel your child's stress reaches a crisis level," she said. "While nightmares, new fears, shock, anxiety, helplessness, sleeplessness, regression or depression are normal for children with a deployed parent, your child may need extra help if these behaviors continue for more than one month."
Children may enjoy keeping a journal, scrapbook or photo album of daily events to share with their parent when they return home. This will allow the parent to understand and take part in the activities and events that have gone on during the deployment. E-mail also can help children keep in touch with a parent during deployment.