All kids want and need their parents to protect and care for them. And all parents
want to be able to tell their kids that mommy and daddy will always be close by.
But a parent leaving for military service disrupts that comforting balance. Some
parents have to leave their families for long stretches of time. Some will be in harm's
way. And despite the pride our men and women in the armed services feel in serving
their country — and the knowledge that they are well trained to do so —
military families can't help but worry how their kids will manage in a parent's absence.
How kids handle separation and what they need from the adults who care for them
while a parent is away will vary somewhat. But kids will react, and the adults around
them need to be prepared. Parents can help smooth the transition before and after
deployment, and foster the resiliency kids need to cope well in between.
There's no easy way to tell a child that a parent has to go away. Yet once a deployment
date is set, it's important to give kids some advance notice, especially if a parent's
deployment will involve big changes like a move or a new primary caregiver.
Here are some tips to consider:
Be honest. The words you use are important and can mean different
things depending on a child's age and maturity. So give kids the truth in terms they
can understand. For example, for young children, the concept of a long separation
is a lot harder to grasp than the fact that mommy won't be there to take them to school
in the mornings or that daddy won't be back until after Christmas. They often do better
with visual reminders, such as a calendar with dates checked off to mark the passage
of time. Older kids, on the other hand, especially those who watch the news, may react
with a greater sense of worry and fear. Reassure them that people in the military
are trained to do their jobs and every effort will be made to ensure safety.
It also helps to be honest about your own feelings. Communicating to your child
that you feel sad, worried, disappointed, or even mad lets your child know that his
or her feelings are normal and that it's safe to discuss them with you. It also opens
the door to a conversation about ways to cope with those tough feelings when they
Let kids know that they will be taken care of. Kids need to feel
protected in a parent's absence, so tell them who will be taking care of them during
the time away. Young children, especially, may have questions about their daily routine.
Be patient and consistent if they ask the same questions over and over. But if a child
seems stuck on a question, it's OK to focus on what's prompting it. For example, a
child who repeatedly asks who will take them to school even when she knows the answer,
may be trying to communicate her worry about the upcoming changes. Tell her that it's
OK to feel worried (and you feel that way too sometimes!), and that there are ways
to cope (such as doing a fun activity together, singing a favorite song, dancing or
being active, or drawing a picture).
Make a plan to stay connected. Let kids know that goodbyes are
hard for everyone — even grown-ups. Remind them that they'll be thought of and
loved while the parent is away, and talk about the people who will be there to help
them feel better when they're feeling sad. Invite your child to come up with ideas
to stay connected — from sending emails to promising to think about each other
at the same time every day.
Try not to overburden. Kids are very attuned to the feelings of
their parents. So be aware of any tension and anxiety they might be picking up on
at home. Also, don't tell your child to be the man or woman of the house while one
parent is away. Kids need to be kids, even in tough times. So instead, tell them you
know they'll do their best even though it might be hard.
Spend extra time together. In the days and weeks before departure,
many military parents feel pressure to get the house in order by tackling their overloaded
to-do lists. Though fixing leaky faucets and taking the car for a tune-up are important,
so is plenty of one-on-one time with each child. The photos, videos, and special mementos
of these times are what your family will hold on to until everyone is together again.
When a parent leaves, family life does change and it can take a little while for
things to fall back into place. Kids are vulnerable at this time, but parents and
caregivers can help them through it.
Here are some ideas:
Keep a routine. Help offset feelings of uncertainty by keeping
life at home as predictable as possible. In the face of big changes, even small things
that stay the same — like a simple bedtime routine or a fun Saturday morning
ritual — can be extremely reassuring.
Keep the absent parent a part of children's lives. Whether it's
looking at pictures and videos, saying a special prayer, counting down days on a calendar,
finding where mommy or daddy is on a map, making a scrapbook, or organizing an activity
your loved one would like, encourage your kids to find creative ways to stay connected
to the parent who's away.
Talk often and listen well. Even the most attentive kids can misinterpret
information. So ask your children what they've heard and then help them correct misconceptions
and put things in perspective. Talk to them about the things that upset them and let
them know it's OK to feel worried sometimes and that you feel that way too. Simply
listening — and letting your kids know that you understand — is very comforting.
Encourage older kids to keep a journal to help work through their feelings.
Get support. A parent's departure is not only unsettling for the
kids, but also overwhelming for the partner who must absorb all the extra duties.
The armed forces have many programs to help families get through the tough times.
Take advantage of them, as well as any offers of support from relatives, friends,
or other military families who know what you're going through — especially if
you're feeling depleted and are finding it hard to supply the positive interaction
your kids need.
When it's time for the homecoming, you expect the hugs, excitement, and happy
tears. But the period of adjustment that often follows can catch many families by
surprise. Though some returning servicemen and -women do slip back easily into the
rhythm of home life, most families need a little time to find their balance.
Here are some ideas for making the transition easier:
Communicate. A lot can change when one partner has been away.
Not only are the kids older, perhaps with new interests and routines, but the remaining
parent might be more self-reliant. It's no wonder that many returning parents have
a hard time figuring out where they fit into the plan. As with any transition, open,
honest communication is key to re-establishing a routine that works for everyone.
Give it time. Forget any expectations about how quickly things
need to go back to "normal." Just because it takes your family time to readjust doesn't
mean you love each other any less or that you won't get back to where you were before
— or even someplace better. Be patient as you get to know each other again,
and give the whole family plenty of chances to rediscover each other.
Take the pressure off. If the first few days and weeks of being
together as a family aren't exactly the fairy tale you had in mind, try not to be
discouraged. Putting pressure on yourself or your family to act or feel a certain
way will only make things harder. Keep a sense of humor and let the process unfold
Every Child Is Different
No two kids will react to a parent's deployment in exactly the same way. Even within
the same family, some kids are naturally even-keeled and resilient, while others are
much more sensitive. Some voice their concerns out loud; others worry in silence.
A child who's feeling anxiety
may show it in subtle ways. Babies and toddlers may become withdrawn or clingy. Preschoolers
may regress in their behaviors or have a resurfacing of old fears. Older kids and
teens — even those who appear to take things in stride — may have problems
like a decreased appetite, withdrawal from activities, sleep problems and nightmares,
restlessness, stomachaches, aggression, anger, sadness, and trouble at school.
If your child has any of these issues, avoid punishing, scolding, or shaming. Open
communication, plenty of reassurance, consistency, and understanding — as well
as calm but clear statements about what behaviors are out of bounds — can help
get your child back on track.
Try not to take it personally if your child expresses anger toward either the absent
or remaining parent. Though hard to hear, some temporary anger is normal when something
happens that kids don't want and can't control. Help your kids express their strongest
feelings in words (keeping a journal is a great way for older kids to do this), and
continue to set limits on unacceptable ways to express anger. Tell them when you're
feeling proud of their good behavior, bravery, kindness, helpfulness, and efforts.
Deployment is not an easy time for a family. Whether you're the parent who's away
or the one at home, your kids will need your love and encouragement more than ever.
Some days will be harder than others, but you can get through it — especially
with the help of others.