Military kids: not just 'brats'

August 1, 2009

Details the mental stresses facing the child of a military parent: moving, desployment, limited communication, and potential injury or death of the parent.

But the term brat, while used with affection, is dismissive. After all, brats are spoiled and impolite, rude without cause. Military children, even those who have exemplary behavior, have true cause for any bad behavior. They're going through a tougher childhood than most, with worries about a parent's safety and absences. This mental trauma may affect them in profound ways, which may come off as merely bratty. Military children need that attention, especially from a pediatrician, to see beyond the "brat."

What can you do? The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests screening for deployment stress in military children, and following up with resources for prevention and support if it's needed. (Read more at http://www.aap.org/sections/uniformedservices/deployment/index.html.)

Things don't always reset when the parent reenters the picture. They've often missed a lot of their child's development, and their bond may be strained. The parent or the child may blame the other for the loss of this time.

And that's if a parent comes home healthy. If a military parent is injured, it may be a long time before they return home. If the injury is severe-the loss of a limb, a head wound-there will be an adjustment period. The parent may act differently, which could alienate their children. If they need assistance around the house, their child may become a substitute home health care worker.

But what if a parent dies? For this worst of fates, there are numerous existing pediatric guidelines, from AAP and elsewhere. A military death brings with it a ritualized funeral, a greater support network, but also more questions about why Mom or Dad died. Coming home alive, though, doesn't lessen the need for understanding for these families.

Military pediatricians know this firsthand: in 2007 there were over 1,300 of them, including specialists and family practitioners. 2009 marks the 60th anniversary of the US's first military pediatrics residency program, in the Walter Reed military installation. But one doesn't have to serve Uncle Sam to serve military children. Your best weapons are a friendly ear, a wise eye, and the ability to see the sometimes troubled child behind the "brat."