Children and Reunion
Change is at least as stressful for children as it is for adults. The absent parent’s return is a major change for the children in the household. They have grown in every way physically, emotionally and socially during the deployment. Children have very little life experience and are not equipped to deal with stress, so their behaviour may change when a parent comes home and regress to more immature behaviour. They may become unruly and misbehave more often, or they might even withdraw inside themselves as a reaction to the changes within the household. The re-adjustment period may take around four to six weeks for the entire family. You can greatly enhance your family’s reunion by developing realistic expectations of how your child will respond, based upon their age.
Infants up to 12 Months
An infant has not yet developed much of an ability to remember people or events, so do not be surprised when your baby does not recognise it's returning parent. Small babies will cry when picked up by this ‘stranger’, which may be upsetting at first. However, the child will respond to what is going on around them, and if the other parent is happy for this ‘strange person’ to be around then so will your baby. Speeding up the baby’s acceptance of this new person can be encouraged by taking part in activities together, such as bathing, feeding and changing the baby. Be patient and let your baby set the pace of the reunion.
Toddlers (Age 1 to 3)
A typical response from a toddler may be to run and hide from the newly returned parent, or to cling to mum and cry. Sometimes, toddlers can regress to younger stages of behaviour or bedwetting. This may be more relevant if the returning parent has issues that they have brought back from their tour. This ‘new’ person may look intimidating to a small child, so talk at eye level, and offer to play or do an activity. Don’t force the pace, as this could make the child uncomfortable. It could help to show pictures of the returning parent a few weeks before they return and mention them more often in conversation. It is at this age that ‘out of sight out of mind’ rings true, which is just normal for this age-group.
Pre-School Age (3 to 5)
Children of this age tend to think that the world revolves around them. Keeping that in mind, it is not surprising that your child may think they somehow made their parent go away because of something they did, or that their parent does not love them. If this is the case with your child, they may feel guilty or abandoned. As a result, your child may express intense anger as a way of keeping a returning parent at a distance, thereby protecting themselves from further disappointment. Your child is likely to do some form of limit-testing to see if the rules applied during the parent’s absence still apply now they are back.
School Age (5 to 12)
Children of this age group are likely to give parents a very warm welcome as long as the relationship was strong before the parent left. This age will most likely run to their returning parent as soon as they see them, try and manipulate all their attention and talk their socks off! They will probably be genuinely excited about the homecoming. If the relationship was not so strong, or strained in some way, the child may dread or even fear the return of a parent. This could be because of worry that they may be punished for any misbehaviour that was highlighted during the period of absence. The best advice for this is to take a friendly interest in what your child is doing or has done, and focus on giving praise for any accomplishments and efforts.
Adolescents (13 to 18)
If you have a teenager in your family then you will be fully aware of mood swings, which manifest themselves in a roller-coaster of emotions. They may be excited about their parent’s return, but they could be concerned that they may be unfavourably judged or criticised. They might try to hide their real emotions to try and look “cool”, so you should be aware of this and try to take time to talk to your teenager. Try to discuss what is happening in their lives, and how they feel.
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