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Tweens

Middle childhood is a time of transition. These are the “tween” years between childhood and adolescence. This can be a confusing and even overwhelming time for children and their parents. Significant changes happen in all aspects of life – friends, family relationships, academics, abilities and interests, and physical growth. School age children are also more aware of the realities of their parent’s deployment and have expectations about what life will be like when he/she returns.

Typical development

Social

  • Friends become increasingly important during this stage. Tweens usually have a best friend, but this person might change often.
  • Peer issues such as teasing, bullying or rejection are quite common.
  • As children age, they begin spending less time with their family.
  • Tweens require less parenting for routine tasks.

Emotional

  • Feelings can be easily hurt and tweens may worry about what others think.
  • Tweens begin to want more independence and responsibility.
  • Tweens develop deeper and more complex feelings such as guilt, shame or doubt.
  • Children in this age range commonly fear the unknown, failure, death, family problems or rejection.

Cognitive

  • Tweens develop the ability to think with greater complexity, and may ask difficult questions or begin to question the logic of parents’ decisions.

Physical

  • In the later stages of middle childhood, body changes (such as the widening of hips, the development of breasts or testes and the appearance of pubic hair) indicate approaching puberty. Girls generally develop earlier than boys.
  • Growth is slower than in preschool years, but remains steady. Some children have growth spurts in the later stages of mid-childhood.
  • Eating may fluctuate with activity levels.
  • Muscle coordination and control improve during this period.

Common post-deployment reactions

  • Children may need a period of time to “warm up” to the returning parent. This should not be taken personally.
  • Some children may seem overly clingy to the returning parent. Conversely, children may become negative and critical of the returning parent.
  • Tweens may be worried about the war and whether his/her parent might be re-deployed.
  • The child may ask difficult or complicated questions about the returning parent’s experiences during deployment.
  • During play or conversation, tweens may recreate war or their image of what happened during their parent’s deployment.
  • Changes in mood may be evident, including irritability, moodiness or whining.
  • Tweens may attempt to test their limits with parents, showing defiance or refusing to follow directions.
  • Mild to moderate changes in behavior may be observed, including:
    • An increased activity level
    • Decreased concentration and/or attention
    • Appearing more withdrawn from the family
    • An increase in attention-seeking behavior
    • Angry outbursts
  • School performance or attendance may suffer.
  • Changes in sleep or appetite may occur.

Strategies for parents

  • Allow time for the family to transition back into normal routines, without rushing the reunion.
    • The returning parent should move slowly back into family routines, giving others a chance to adjust.
    • The parent who remained is encouraged to help the returning parent integrate into family routines.
  • Whenever possible, maintain the family routines as they were during deployment, particularly around sleeping, eating and extracurricular activities such as church, sports or dance.
  • Schedule individual special time or activities between the returning parent and the child to help reconnect.
  • Avoid unnecessary separations from important caregivers.
  • Engage in soothing activities such as reading books, listening to music, taking a walk, riding bikes, etc. Also, join your child in his/her preferred activities.
  • Become involved in school, with both your child’s teachers and his/her friends.
  • Show interest in what your child has been doing during your deployment. Spend time looking through pictures and school projects, and asking questions about his/her activities.
  • Exercise increased patience with your child and with yourself.
  • Find ways to emphasize to your children that you love them.
  • Be prepared for children to ask questions about the deployment experience. Children think differently than adults; their questions may seem “out of left field.” Answer your child’s questions as honestly as possible with a level of detail consistent with their age and emotional maturity.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions and to talk about his/her feelings or worries. Try to be alert to the feelings associated with what your child tells you. Accept that these feelings are part of a normal reaction to a difficult separation.
  • Address acting-out behavior involving aggression or self-destructive activities quickly and firmly, setting clear limits.

Red flags

  • Dramatic change in behavior from how they were during deployment
  • Engaging in behaviors considered typical for younger children: bedwetting, soiling, refusing to sleep in their own beds, baby talk, etc.
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Clinginess to the point of being unable to separate from parents
  • Emotional or behavioral symptoms that interfere with school performance or social activities
  • An absence of friends
  • Significant problems with learning or changes in school performance
  • Notable changes in sleep or appetite
  • Aggression or violence toward animals, objects, other children or adults

If your child shows any of the above symptoms or shows other significant changes in behavior or functioning, we encourage you to seek additional help from your child’s pediatrician, teacher or minister, or from a mental health specialist. The Resources and Community Referrals chapters in this guide may also provide useful options for your family.

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