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Expert Q&A

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How can I help my toddler adjust to my military schedule?

Asked by Virginia, El Paso, Texas

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I am in the military and I have a 3-year-old. I am now on active duty and I can see her only on the weekends for the time being. So now that I am coming and going, she is going through some kind of withdrawal. The doctor says she is on a psychological roller coaster right now because of my coming and going. So his suggestion was for me not to see her at all. I am no doctor but I would think some interaction is better than no interaction at all. Can you please help me, because if it's going to make my daughter better I will stay away until I am finished.

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Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert answer

Dear Virginia,

Maybe it's the early morning hour at which I read your question, or the fact that we have new babies in our own household, but your situation really broke my heart. Having said this, however, I have to start my response the way I always do, by reminding both you and our readers that I know nothing about you or your situation other than the few words above, so I cannot make definitive recommendations for your exact problem.

Nonetheless, it turns out that many scientific studies have examined what happens to children who are separated from their parents early in life, and based on those studies I strongly disagree with the idea that a parent should stop having contact with a child because the separations are difficult. Quite the contrary, parents should bend over backward to have as much loving contact with a child as their circumstances will allow.

What is the evidence upon which I make this claim? Well, it turns out that during World War II many European countries decided that the safest thing to do was to send children away from dangerous areas like cities to safe hiding places in the country. While done, I believe, with the best of intentions, this led to a whole generation of children being separated from their parents for extended periods. It turns out that the results were disastrous. Children sent to safety but separated from their parents (especially their mothers) had much more depression and anxiety over the next 60 years than did average children, or even than children who for one reason or another had remained in the cities and been exposed to trauma such as bombing. Not only did the separated children struggle with anxiety and depression across their lives, but they also had a harder time forming close, fulfilling attachments with other people. They also were at an increased risk of developing physical illnesses such as heart disease as adults. So I am telling you that our best data suggest that -- on average -- it is more traumatic for a child to be separated from his or her mother than to experience aerial bombing!

Virginia, there are many, many more studies that show just how crucial the love of a parent is for the healthy development of a child. Animal studies show that how a mother treats its offspring actually changes how the offspring's genes are expressed, not just in childhood, but across its entire life span.

I have a couple of practical suggestions that might be relevant to a situation like yours. First, I would explore whether there might be ways to have at least voice contact several times a day, which you may be doing already. I would also talk honestly and openly about your situation with your daughter, even at 3 children are old enough to understand and be empowered by the truth when they hear it. Humans are also comforted when they feel they have some power in a situation. I would explore ways to help your daughter feel like she is an active player in the situation. I would talk to her regularly about what she thinks might help her feel better, and if any of her ideas are doable, I'd seriously consider doing them. I'd also explore what types of professional counseling/therapy resources are available so that your daughter might get the benefit of professional help.

Please feel free to send in another question or follow-up as you move forward in trying to care for your daughter.

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