Being the child of a veteran can lead to a unique childhood. Young people respond to the same things we do – they see, hear and sense things – but may not be able to understand or talk about their emotions and needs in the same way we can.
Childhood and adolescence
Childhood and adolescence are phases where your child is developing their understanding of the world, other people and themselves. This development occurs within the context of their relationships with you and with others. These developmental phases also determine how experiences (for example, changes and transitions) are understood and responded to.
Working on positive family dynamics is a great way to support your child's wellbeing and development. Accessing support early when problems start can also be beneficial.
Tailored services for children
Open Arms provides counselling to families and children of all ages:
Training and resources
We also publish a range of booklets for improving children's wellbeing and strengthening relationships within the family unit.
Building good mental health in childhood
As a parent, carer or significant adult, you can have a significant positive role in helping your child/young person build the knowledge, skills and behaviours that are a part of good mental health.
Children with good mental health:
- have healthy relationships
- feel positive about themselves
- can learn new information and skills
- feel safe and supported
- can manage their feelings
- can experience a full range of emotions, and
- appropriately respond to change
Some of the things you may already be doing as a parent will be setting your child up with the resources they need for good mental health, including:
- having a strong relationship with your child
- communicating love and care
- praising and encouraging
- support them to work out ways to solve problems and tackle challenges
- providing opportunities to connect with others
- being clear with your expectations of behaviour and involving your child in developing rules and consequences
- role modelling healthy ways of engaging with emotions
- talking about emotions – both yours and others
- normalising their emotions and helping them to recognise and label feelings
- addressing failure as an opportunity to keep learning
- setting achievable goals and encouraging them to try new things
- developing health habits
- prioritising good sleep and educating about the importance of sleep
- offering healthy food and modelling a positive relationship with food
- doing shared physical activity together
- taking issues and challenges seriously and preparing to manage impacts where possible
- sometimes challenges like transitions, loss, anxiety, family breakdown can benefit from extra support
See also: Living well
Signs and symptoms
Know what is ‘typical’ for your child and look for changes in their usual behaviours. Changes that are unusual for your child and that persist may indicate that your child is struggling to understand and cope with their feelings or fears:
- appetite changes
- sleep changes and nightmares (for very young children, fears and worries can be bound up in imagination and then potentially become the monsters that inhabit dreams)
- irritability, anger, acting out
- tiredness, lethargy
- withdrawal (from people or from previously enjoyed activities)
- avoidance (eg school avoidance)
- return to earlier habits (bedwetting, thumb sucking etc)
- reluctance to take on new activities or change routines
- problems with focus or concentration
- reluctance to be apart from loved ones
- hypervigilance and monitoring behaviours
- self-harm behaviours or suicidal words or thoughts
- what is happening in their play, their drawings, and their interactions with friends and siblings
A worried child
When sensing your child is worried, it is tempting to try to make it better by saying things like 'don’t worry' or 'there is nothing for you to worry about'.
This isn't a great approach for five reasons:
- Your child knows it’s not true (they see, hear and sense things).
- Worry can be a very normal and understandable response in a lot of situations. We don’t want our children to learn to distrust their emotional responses to situations.
- They will be left to wonder how ‘not to worry’.
- It can leave us as adults feeling confused and additionally worried about whether we have said the right thing.
- It misses a valuable opportunity for you to work with your child to help them better understand what is happening and to build on their ability to recognise, communicate and manage their responses.
What you can do to help
Pay attention and observe your children. Notice when they are ready to talk and then truly listen to them, even if it is difficult or painful for you to do so.
Sometimes, children and adolescents might not want to talk because they don’t want you to be more stressed and upset. You might need to let your child know that you want to hear what they have to say, even if it's difficult for them to say. Creating opportunities to talk when you are both engaging in another activity (for example, playing sport, washing the dishes, cleaning the yard, etc.) can feel a bit less confronting.
Listening means more than just hearing:
- take their fear and worries seriously, never deny or belittle
- keep your own feelings in reserve so that you can be truly present for your child
- soften your own reactions – children will, like any of us, tune out to any strong emotions like anger or defensiveness – or will feel responsible for ‘causing’ you to be upset
- stop what you are doing and look at your child: better yet, sit down and be on their physical level so you can look at each other
- let them finish, don’t interrupt or hurry them along – we all know what it feels like to be interrupted or ‘cut off’
- resist any desire to push back or argue about ‘right or wrong’ – just explain calmly if you think differently about what they are saying
- repeat or reflect back to them what you hear them saying
Sometimes they may only give you a piece of the story – they can be doing this as a kind of test. Hang in, listen carefully and try not to push or hassle them about telling you ‘everything’ now. Telling you ‘everything’ may be hard, they may need help to find the words and understand the feelings – be patient.
- Ask what they may need or want from you – of course, this will depend on their age.
- Normalise their emotions and thank them for sharing with you (it's not an easy thing).
- Help them problem solve (if they are old enough to do so) and only after you have truly listened.
- Help them understand what is happening (in an age appropriate way). It’s ok to say 'I don’t know' if you don’t have an answer right now.
Dealing with your own issues
If you have physical and/or mental health problems, these can seem to dominate your life. You might see your mental health impacting your family life and relationships. It could make it hard at times to play with or engage with your kids. You might also question your abilities as a parent and experience doubt, guilt or self-blame. Your children could see you struggling and want to help you feel better, but be unsure of how best to spend time with you.
Cut yourself some slack. We are all a work in progress and by working on your mental health recovery, you are being a strong positive role model for your child and creating a positive attitude toward help-seeking.
Don’t give up on connecting with your child or young person. Open Arms has published several useful booklets that can help.
We also offer a range of self-help tools that can help you feel calm, take some time out and think more clearly about a situation. It’s very important to take care of yourself, to be able to help others.
Being a role model
Children learn by watching and listening, and will often follow what they see modelled. This includes both helpful and not-so helpful behaviours and ways of coping with stress.
Try to maintain a good routine for your children (and yourself) with healthy nutrition, sleep, play and exercise. We are all familiar with the oxygen mask analogy: to be able to say ‘I'm here for you, I've got you’ to your children, you need to be looking after yourself.
Connecting with kids
As an ADF member (past or present), you may have been deployed or posted away from your families for significant periods of time. Of course, this is challenging for both you and your family as it can mean missing out on family time and some of your child’s development and growth. Your family may have formed new rules and ways of doing things while you were away. This can be tough to adjust to (as they may not be willing or able to simply go back to the 'way things were' before your deployment).
A few tips on reconnecting with your children and family are:
- spend time with them, even if your mood isn’t great. This can be active, fun things, or even doing chores with them (get them to help wash the car, even if their handiwork is below your standard – they feel involved and they’re doing stuff with you).
- take time to talk with them. This means listening to how their day was, and telling them a little bit about how you are (eg 'some days are tough since I came home, but it’s so good to see you all again').
- show them that you’re interested in their achievements and progress
- accept that deployment and other absences has led to you missing out on some of your child’s development is necessary. There may be some grief, loss, or regret associated with this. Open Arms is here for you if you need someone to talk to about this.
Talking to kids
Lets be real, talking with your kids isn’t always easy! This can be particularly true as your child/young person hits their teenage years. However, while it may be difficult, it's not impossible, and communicating and continuing to connect with your child is incredibly important for both your wellbeing and theirs. It's worth the effort.
Teenagers are developing their own independence and may push boundaries while doing so, but they still need your support as they are still building their understanding of their internal emotional world. It’s important that they have this opportunity, while also knowing that you are still there to offer a safe and helping hand when they might struggle. Depending on your own upbringing and military experience, it can be hard to deal with a sometimes difficult teen who may be disrespectful and is less inclined to just 'do as they’re told'. Take a moment here to think back to when you were a teenager. Although it can be hard at times, they still need you and your support as much as ever.
The Australian parenting website raisingchildren.net.au has some great tips for connecting with children, including fun activities, praise, and doing things together.
- Teens communicating & relationships | Raising Children Network
- Effective communication and teenagers - ReachOut Parents
- Build A Healthy Relationship With Your Young Person | headspace
Talking about suicide or self-harm
Self-harm includes acts or behaviours where a person intentionally hurts themselves physically. This can also include dangerous or risky behaviours (e.g. driving dangerously and erratically at very high speeds). There are many reasons a young person may self-harm. It can be their way of trying to cope or deal with distress.
Suicidal thoughts should always be taken seriously. Suicide and self-harm can be scary issues for families and young people to deal with and families should not feel like they need to cope alone. If your child or young person begins deliberately hurting themselves or talking about wanting to die or killing themselves, always listen, express concern, and talk to them about getting help. Seeking professional help will help them to identify the underlying reasons for their thoughts and behaviours and help them to learn other ways of coping.
The following sites provide further information:
- Self-harm and self-injury - Beyond Blue
- Self-harm and teenagers - ReachOut Parents
- Understanding self harm for families (headspace.org.au)
Support and helplines
- Relationships Australia offers counselling, mediation and family dispute resolution. Contact your state-based Relationships Australia service on 1300 364 277 for further information.
- The Raising Children Network provides resources for parents, including helping children deal with separation.
- Head to health provides a range of self help support tools, apps and resources. Covering topics like parenting skills, maintaining healthy families, and connecting with children.
- The Kids Helpline offers free and confidential counselling to young people aged 5 to 25 on 1800 55 1800.
- eheadspace provides free online and telephone support and counselling to young Australians aged 12 to 25, their families and friends.
- Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 has information for children and their parents at Healthy Families.
- Lifeline www.lifeline.org.au 13 11 14
Tailored activities for children
The Australian Kookaburra Kids Foundation supports kids living in families with a serving or ex-serving parent affected by mental illness. It provides recreational, educational camps and other activities. The aim is to give kids a break in a fun, positive and safe environment. Kookaburra Kids provides age-appropriate mental health education focusing on coping skills and resilience. It helps children bond with peers who are facing similar challenges.
Defence Kids Activities supports children from serving and ex-serving ADF families.
DMFS TeenSMART workshops help Defence teenagers manage deployment and relocation. Defence teenagers can meet and share their stories about being part of a military family. They can also learn tactics to help them stay connected to deployed parents and meet new friends. The workshop also covers managing change and coping with stress.
DMFS KidSMART are four-week programs for primary-aged kids to help them manage posting, relocation and deployment. The workshops help children cope with stress and anxiety. Kids can learn some techniques for handling emotions and relaxation, too. Sessions are once a week for 1 to 1.5 hours per session.
Other useful contacts
Legacy offers support for veterans' families and children
Children’s Education Schemes provide financial assistance, special assistance, student support services and arrange for guidance and counselling for eligible children to help them achieve their full potential in full-time education or career training.
The young carers network helps young carers to learn about support services, access resources and share their stories and opinions.
There is a range of Defence Education Support to assist with the transition between schools and education systems, and to provide support for the unique needs of Defence students.
The Defence Special Needs Support Group helps Defence families with special needs across Australia.
The Good Grief website has information about child or youth experiences of grief and loss.
To find out how we can help you or your child, call Open Arms on 1800 011 046.
Open Arms counselling is available to family members of current and ex-serving ADF personnel, including partners and both younger and adult children. Where there has been a death of a service person, parents and siblings can also access our service.
These booklets aim to provide practical information for those affected by mental health or trauma, including resources to support the wellbeing of the family member and strengthen relationships within the family unit.
Open Arms can provide individual, couple and family counselling to help improve your resilience, as well as enhance your mental health and wellbeing. Call 1800-011-046 for free and confidential 24/7 support.