• July 22, 2014

Military children cope with deployment

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Posted: Sunday, July 14, 2013 4:30 am

When Cyndee Taresh came home from deployment in 2003, something wasn’t right.

She and her then-husband were both deployed at the same time, leaving behind their children, and after years of trying to find normalcy, Taresh realized she couldn’t do it on her own.

“It got to a point where I felt like I couldn’t hold it all together anymore,” said Taresh, who retired in 2011 and lives in Copperas Cove. “I never had a chance to take a knee, and it got to a point where it felt like I was going to lose it.”

It took six years, but Taresh eventually found her way to Tyson’s Corner, an equine therapy center, where she was able to bring the two youngest of her three daughters, now 8 and 11, for counseling. Through therapy with horses, Taresh said her eyes were opened to the fact that her middle daughter didn’t trust her.

“That whole thing for my middle daughter ... was that she was really able to deal with a lot of her anger issues and learn how to talk through things instead of just being mad,” she said. “She learned to say things to me to know I needed to have a conversation or pay attention to her. It helped me a lot.”

Taresh and her family are not alone in their struggles with deployments.

2.3 million deployed

A report published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, shows that military children can be heavily impacted by a parent’s deployment.

The report, “Health and Mental Health Needs of Children in U.S. Military Families” compiled information from studies to raise awareness among pediatricians of the increased risk for mental health issues for the children of the 2.3 million service members deployed since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

Studies show one in four children of active-duty service members has symptoms of depression. One in three children experience excessive worry, and half of children have trouble sleeping, according to the Pediatrics report.

In comparison to the general public, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported on its website that studies show that on any single day, about 2 percent of school-aged children and about 8 percent of adolescents meet the criteria for major depression.

“It’s definitely just natural when you have a disruption,” said Dr. Kyle Morrow, pediatric psychiatrist and division chief and director of Scott & White’s Child Psychiatry Fellowship Training. “They are worried about what they’ve heard about war and worried about their parent being in danger. They are worried something bad will happen.”

The article, he said, does a good job of highlighting the importance for pediatricians to question a family about how they are coping with deployments.

“Just the experience they’ve gone through, it’s hard to adjust back to normal daily life,” Morrow said. “Families know they will be deployed again in a year, and it’s hard to adjust when you know you’re going right back to combat.”

Front line

Pediatricians and primary care physicians are often on the front lines when it comes to determining if children aren’t coping well before, during and after deployments.

Dr. Sarah Nickerson, a pediatrician with Scott & White’s Killeen Pediatric clinic at Hemingway, said she usually starts with an open-ended conversation.

“A lot of times, it’s just inquiring about what do Mom and Dad do for a living. It frequently comes up that one, and sometimes both parents, are in the military,” she said. “Families are pretty open and forthcoming that a parent may be deployed. If you talk about it in passing, and if families have worries, they are good about bringing up those worries.”

The nondeployed parent’s ability to deal with deployment can have an impact on the children, said Dr. Jamie Avila, a pediatrician at Scott & White’s Killeen Clinic, where she said more than half of her patients are affiliated with the military.

“Basically, the thing you want to know is how is everyone coping,” she said. “A big key part is finding out a child’s social situation in general. I try to figure out what the status is at home, support systems, or just try to figure out if there are any stressors. An important part in children’s health is how the family is functioning.”

Avila said she refers families into counseling, particularly when she hears they don’t think they can handle a situation, such as deployment. More often than not, she refers the entire family.

“It depends, but I find in general, children aren’t the only ones who tend to be affected,” Avila said. “Maybe the child comes in with headaches or behavioral issues, but usually the family as a whole isn’t functioning. I really do (support) the whole family aspect, because it not only helps them out to learn how to help child cope better, but also ... (it) lets them see each other’s perspectives in a controlled manner.”

All connected

Because psychiatrists typically only see patients who are referred by a pediatrician, it’s critical to maintain a strong relationship between the two specialties, said Dr. Sylvia Turner, one of four child psychiatrists at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center’s Child and Family Assistance Center at Fort Hood.

“It’s all connected. It all has an impact on everything,” she said. “So kids in particular who are depressed, they actually present with lots of physical complaints — ‘My tummy hurts; my legs hurt.’ They don’t say, ‘I’m sad.’ Kids with (post-traumatic stress disorder), may complain about having difficulty breathing ... which presents as a physical symptom.”

Nickerson said some of the red flags that may initiate a referral to mental health are those that interfere with a child’s everyday life — problems with sleep, excessive crying or worrying or a loss of interest in the family routine or activities they normally enjoy.

Gaining stability

Turner said children are most often referred to her from pediatricians for behavioral issues such as aggression or irritability.

She then works with the family to sort out what’s happening and how to gain stability.

“It’s often multi-factorial,” Turner said. “There are so many different bits and pieces that you have to really look at to determine what’s going on in their environment — whatever their environment may include. It may be school, it may be day care, or family.”

Turner said she sees about eight to 10 children a day, and works with the family until the child is functioning well and is stable in two out of three main domains of life — academically, socially and within their peer group.

Taresh is so grateful for the results of her family’s therapy at Tyson’s Corner, she now gives back to the program by helping take care of the horses on weekends.

“My family, we’re not perfect, but we’re so much more healed,” she said. “Every family should be afforded and take advantage of going into family counseling when they get back no matter what. Even if you come back and everything seems fine, especially if you have more than one child. We are all so unique and individual; we experience things differently.”

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