Kids of Combat Veterans
There is so much talk about veterans that are suffering after combat. Now there is even talk beginning about caregivers as the VA turns their attention to the wives and family members who are helping the soldiers the government system is letting down. What I hear little of is about their kids.
Not every combat veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, mental illnesses, or physical injuries have a family, a wife or kids. The American population who served in any military branch is less than 1%. That means the percentage of those who fought in combat and have children,... even more minimal. That leaves us with a small population of scattered families coping with the aftermath of war, with their kids looking on. These kids are surrounded by neighbors that have no idea what they are struggling with inside their homes, going to schools that are not addressing anything related to what they are dealing with, and walking along side their peers and a society oblivious to their needs. This is not the natural order of the military child. They are taken out of a supportive military environment, with post family resilience groups, get togethers, and other children living exactly the same experiences, and thrust into a void of understanding. Couples and soldiers go through minimal deployment return training, and soldiers may be given a few tips on how to re-integrate into civilian society once they are discharged. But kids? They are expected to just move from one house to the next, go back to a new school, and adjust. Sometimes, without even a discussion from a supportive mother or father. Granted, the parents are dealing with such a huge amount of stress already.
When we were discharged from the military, swiftly after an emergency return from the Iraq war in 2003, we were not prepared for what lied waiting beneath. Our soldier came back looking as if he was unharmed. We were all ready to continue as normal now. And we tried, for years, not understanding why things were not going as they should. There was no talk of PTSD at this time, or TBI, or even mental illness that could come of experiencing combat. Neither of us were from military families, and were unaware of what could come up. Once we were civilians, we thought we had to be up to par with everyone else immediately. We also thought nothing was wrong. This worked against us, and made our journey so much longer. Had we been informed of the possibility of any of the above, getting help would have been a much faster process. Understanding would have also given light of the proper action needed,...
...And our children watched.
I don't want to admit to all the occurrences they observed, the verbal exchanges, the triggered episodes, the anxiety they felt. It breaks my heart. For over half of those years I was the shock absorber and the great pretender. I hid everything I possibly could, and shielded them as much as possible. I suffered. Eventually, I broke from all that I was trying to contain and continue to hide. I could not do it anymore. My plan wasn't working. What I thought I could cover up and fix wasn't fixing. They then saw not only my husbands symptoms, but my own begin to emerge. The only thing I could do now was be more honest with them about what was going on, bring it out to the light, and get them the support they needed, as well as myself and my husband. It wasn't until 2010 that we finally found out his diagnosis', and began to feel less shame about all the turmoil we had been through. 6 years after discharge, that is too long of a time to wait.
Even as we began to learn about PTSD and TBI and it's co-occurring mental illnesses, I was lost for words on how to explain things to my kids. I said very little, but began to at least mention reasons and labels. It is barely now that I can say I am ready to truly explain what he is personally dealing with on their level in greater detail. Most importantly, I want to share with those of you raising children of combat veterans, a couple of things I know so far.
5 Ideas to Start:
1) Put on your own oxygen mask first. If you don't have the answers, you certainly can't give any to them. Get the support you need, then pass it down. It doesn't work the other way around. Just don't even try it. You'll have to role model everything they will need to know. Get your own counselor first, work out your depression first, begin healing yourself first. Then help your kiddos.
2) Teach. The coping skills you've learned on this journey so far are the same coping skills our children need adjusted to their developmental level... for they are experiencing the same stressors, and will have a tendency to attempt the same unhealthy reactions they've seen modeled if they are not taught healthy ones. Hopefully by now, as a caregiver, you have learned you need to practice self care, have time to do things you love, and know how to communicate assertively. Teach these to your kids. Model good communication, give them words to use and examples of how to deal with difficult exchanges they have with their veteran parent, show them how to have fun even when things can be stressful at home. Remember, laughter and fun are great coping skills. I just did a puppet show using crayons at a restaurant table of good ways and bad ways to speak to one another. I showed them what they can say to a frustrated or triggered veteran parent. Or what they should not say. I also showed what is not appropriate for a triggered parent to say to them. This was just as effective a show to my husband as it was to the kids, LOL.
3) Create a safe place for them to go in the house if a parent has a tendency towards outbursts. We claim this as a drama free zone, and mark boundaries around it, physical or imaginary, and ask that everyone respect that area for the person. Disagreements cannot happen there, others can't go there without being invited in, etc. Mine is an area in the master bedroom. I keep a journal there, a yoga mat, and my favorite blanket. My daughter's is in her room on her window seat. Everyone should have one, the veteran, wife, AND kids. So far, it's totally working. Also create another space outside the home they can escape to, have another family member's or friend's house they can stay with if it's a a stressful week and you see your veteran triggered all over the place. This can relieve stress for both the parents and the kids, and time to reset to some healthier patterns.
4) Give them words. Talk to them casually about what is going on. In our case, for example, their dad just received a service dog and they had no idea how to answer questions their friends might bring up about it. So, we practiced dialogue with each other. I taught them that they don't have to divulge every detail, but answer simply and generally. What to say, why the dog helps, what it is for, etc. I even practiced with them how to say "I'd rather not answer that right now" Answering is not required. But if they choose to, they have the vocabulary and understanding to share.
5) Allow them space to be upset. They can be just as disappointed by the realizations or experiences as you have been. Sometimes, all someone needs is someone to sit next to as they cry about it. We can't fix everything or make life perfect, but we can choose to always stay by one another's side.
My intention is for all of us to find the words together to explain things to our children. To share our resources with one another of how we supported them, and re-unite the community that once served together on these military posts. If anything, at least virtually. There is so much more to come,...