Have you recently received a call that your service member has become very seriously injured (VSI) or seriously injured (SI)? Do you have a child who will be affected by your wounded warrior’s injury? Are you struggling to prepare your child for the emotional impact that your wounded warrior’s injury may have on his or her life?
If so, you can strive to overcome these challenges by preparing your child for what may occur during the first visit to your wounded warrior's bedside. No one knows how your child will react when first seeing your wounded warrior; however, understanding your child’s emotional needs, planning ahead, and providing support to your child before, during, and after the initial visit may set the tone for how he or she will interact on future visits.
Developmental approach to the emotional care of children
Seeing a seriously injured service member can be emotionally distressing to children and teenagers. One aspect of preparing young people for the experience is knowing how to communicate with children of different ages.
Infants, toddlers, and young school-age children
According to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (CSTS), young children are less likely to need to know the details about the injury that a teenager would require. Depending on your child's age, use appropriate language that he or she will understand. Describe your wounded warrior’s injury from a child’s point of view. Younger children may find it helpful if you show where your wounded warrior is injured by using a doll, puppet, or other prop. Be aware of certain disclosures when talking to younger children about your wounded warrior’s condition. Do not provide details to a child who is not ready to hear them.
School-age children, preteens, and teenagers
School-age children, preteens, and teenagers are able to understand certain concepts and definitions, making it easier for you to explain certain medical terminology associated with your wounded warrior. Also, teenagers may feel as though they are being drawn back into their parents’ lives at a time when they are learning to become independent. Parents or guardians should not expect a teenager to take on the adult role in the family now that the service member is wounded.
Regardless of your child's age, provide reassurance that your wounded warrior is still the same person even though he or she may look different. Provide comfort by letting your child know that it is okay to be angry, frightened, or sad.
Support for the first visit to your wounded warrior's bedside
Knowing what actions to take before, during, and after your child's first visit to your wounded warrior's bedside will help all members of the family cope with the situation.
What to do before the visit
- Using age-appropriate language, describe to your child the hospital scene, including medical equipment.
- Talk about the medical equipment and what everything does.
- Describe how your wounded warrior may look, especially if his or her appearance has changed.
- Prepare your wounded warrior for the strong emotions your child may experience when seeing him or her for the first time.
- Teach your child the medical terminology associated with your wounded warrior’s injury.
- Arrange for your child to meet with your wounded warrior’s medical team. The team can answer any questions the child may have in an age-appropriate manner.
- Schedule the visit for a time when you will not need to discuss other business and can focus solely on your child and your wounded warrior.
What to do during the visit
- Reassure your child that there are other ways of communicating (for example, telephone, emails, letters) if he or she is not ready to go into the hospital.
- Allow your child to hug or touch your wounded warrior if it is okay with the medical team.
- Identify and respond to your child’s emotional signals. Do not force your child to go near your wounded warrior if he or she does not want to do so.
- Bring pictures, drawings, flowers, etc., from your child to make your wounded warrior feel better.
- Reinforce the relationship among family members by doing activities that involve your child and your wounded warrior. These relaxing activities could include reading to your wounded warrior or sharing photo albums.
- Keep the hospital visit short. Your child may become uncomfortable or bored if a visit seems too long.
What to do after the visit
- Limit disruptions to your child’s routine; continuity represents stability.
- Engage in hopeful, future-oriented activities with your child.
- Identify coping signs. If your child is not coping well with your wounded warrior’s condition, make sure he or she develops positive coping strategies such as getting involved in extracurricular activities to manage sadness, sorrow, and anxiety.
- Recognize behavioral changes. If your child is young, he or she may become clingy and return to old habits and behaviors, such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting.
- Seek professional advice if you have an older child or teen who begins to exhibit symptoms of headaches, stomachaches, or aggression or begins to do poorly in school and engages in risk-taking behaviors as a way of coping with your wounded warrior’s injury.
- Talk to your child’s teacher about the changes in your child’s life, especially if your child is experiencing behavioral changes.
- Listen and respond to your child’s needs; children are good at telling you what they need.
For additional resources related to children’s responses to wounded warriors and hospitals, download the Hero Handbook or check out the Military One Source guide "Child’s Stress and Grief: Preparing a Child to See an Injured Service Member for the First Time."
- “Child’s Stress and Grief: Preparing a Child to See an Injured Service Member for the First Time.” Military One Source. 13 June 2011.
- “Communicating with Children about Parental Injury.” Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, Department of Psychiatry, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. 20 June 2011.
- “Emotional Care after a Traumatic Injury.” Cincinnati Children’s. 20 June 2011.
- “Our Hero Handbook: A guide for families of wounded soldiers.” 13 June 2011.
Photos provided by the Fort Hood Sentinel.