It’s never easy for children when a parent must leave home for a military deployment. Though we may first think of the stress on school-aged children and teens, preschoolers and toddlers feel these effects, too. Even babies definitely notice and respond to the absence of a parent.
There is reason for concern. Research suggests that parental deployment, especially when it is long or frequent, may cause children to feel insecurely attached, depressed, or anxious. Behavior problems may also occur.
Problems may be worse if a parent is injured or is deployed to an active war zone, or when the at-home parent’s mental health is poor. By the way, parents, too, find leaving and returning to be very hard; studies show that deployment is linked to higher parenting stress.
The good news is that there are things families can do to help children adjust and cope with deployment. Research shows that families who actively prepare for deployment are able to handle this stressful process better. For instance, in a 2014 study of younger children, researchers found that military dads who took the time to prepare their kids for deployment felt less stress about parenting on their return.
Tips for Families with a Deploying Parent
- Prepare children ahead of time
Surprisingly, some families don’t explain much to their kids about deployment. They might think that children can’t understand or process the facts. But kids do need to be prepared and included.
Take time far ahead of the actual leave-taking to explain to kids and teens where the parent is going and why. Answer questions, while shielding children from too much detail about risk and danger. Allow children to be honest about their feelings.
It may help to use a globe or map to show children where the parent is going. Special books, TV shows, and websites are also available to help children understand.
Also be sure to allow the child to take part in leave-taking rituals and have a chance to say goodbye. This holds true even for very young children—say the words, even if you’re not sure the child understands.
- Continue communication, with awareness
Help your child stay connected to the deployed parent through sending drawings, photos, recorded messages, care packages, and cards. Where possible, the deployed parent can make an effort to send similar items (this may need to be arranged in advance).
You might also consider fun ways of passing the time while the service member is gone, such as taking a picture every day to show him or her later, counting down the days on a paper chain or calendar, or removing an item from a jar every day to represent “one day closer to home.”
While today’s high-tech communication can be a great thing, it is also possible for it to create unnecessary anxiety. Children and teens may feel alarmed if video calls end suddenly, or if they show something they can’t understand or find frightening. Unless you are sure nothing troubling will happen, it may be better to stick to letters or emails.
- Keep up with routines
After a parent leaves and when they return, it may be tempting to slack off on routines, habits, and discipline. This can actually make your child feel anxious and insecure. Stick to the habits and schedules you’ve been in as much as possible, and don’t bend the rules due to the service member’s departure or return. Also remember to present a “united front” when the service member returns: be sure you are on the same page!
- Be aware of the potential for problems
Some sadness is completely normal, but if the child or teen does not begin to adjust after a few weeks, there may be reason for concern. In younger children, look for problems with sleep and eating, regression to younger behavior, clinginess, and new or worse fears. In older kids, you may see dropping grades, anger and withdrawal, physical complaints, or loss of interest in activities and hobbies.
If you are concerned, it may be helpful to try to increase the love, attention, and affection you give to your child. Also, be sure you encourage him or her to express their feelings.
Take advantage of the resources available to you and consider child or family counseling when appropriate. Military OneSource offers a wealth of useful resources.
- Make sure the at-home parent practices self-care
The parent remaining at home during a deployment has a lot on his or her shoulders. Research shows that when this parent is stressed, depressed, or anxious, children can suffer. Unfortunately, sometimes abuse also occurs.
The good news is that there are many resources now available to military families. These include childcare assistance, support groups, and more. Don’t forget to eat well, exercise, seek out fun and support, and get mental breaks.
- Take time to reintegrate
Children and teens will have different reactions to a returning service member, depending on their age. Toddlers, babies, and preschoolers may feel shy and need time to “get to know” the parent again. School-aged children may feel a kind of hero worship. Teenagers may act resentful or ignore the returning parent.
These reactions are normal. Go slowly, but return to normal routines and roles. Remember, too, that the service member will need time to feel at ease with the parenting role again, while the at-home parent will have to get used to “sharing” parenting after flying solo for so long.
Parental deployment can be stressful, difficult, and hard to cope with for children and spouses alike, but it may also bring benefits. Families and researchers alike have found that military children can respond to this challenge with an increased sense of responsibility and independence. This unique experience can actually lead to growth.
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The following resources may be of help to families facing deployment:
Military Child—Helps provide educational opportunities to military children
United Through Reading—This unique program gives service members the opportunity to make videos of themselves reading books aloud to send to their children.
You and Your Military Hero—A book for children with a loved one in the service
Military Kids Connect—An online portal with activities, messageboards, articles and more for military kids.
Sesame Street for Military Families—Wonderful, child-friendly resources and activities for military kids from Sesame Street.
By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida
Blue Star Families/Vulcan Productions. (2013). Everyone serves. Retrieved from http://www.everyoneservesbook.com/downloads/EveryoneServes.pdf
Davis, B. E., Blaschke, G. S., & Stafford, E. M. (2012). Military Children, Families, and Communities: Supporting Those Who Serve. Pediatrics, 129, 1. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/Supplement_1/S3
Gewirtz, AH, Erbes, CR, Polusny, MA, Forgatch, MS, & Degarmo, DS. Helping military families through the deployment process: Strategies to support parenting. Professional Psychology, Research and Practice, 42(1), 56-62. Doi: 10.1037/a0022345
Louie, A. D., & Cromer, L. D. (2014). Parent–child attachment during the deployment cycle: Impact on reintegration parenting stress. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(6), 496-503.
Military.com. (n.d.) Deployment: Your children and separation. Retrieved from http://www.military.com/spouse/military-deployment/dealing-with-deployment/deployment-children-and-separation.html
Military.com. (n.d.) Keeping your child involved during a deployment. Retrieved from http://www.military.com/deployment/keeping-your-child-involved-during-a-deployment.html