Although children’s reactions will vary with their personalities and ages, a parent’s deployment will almost always be puzzling to children. Parents wonder how the separation will affect their children and how they can help them through this time. The deploying parent wonders how they can continue to be a good parent while they are away; the stay-home parent worries about handling added responsibility.
Part 1 of the series, Preparing Children for Deployment, provides steps and activities that prepare your children for the absence of a parent — no matter what that parent’s branch of service may be. The tips are designed to help parents and children connect by building trust and cooperation within the family.
Where do we start? – First, no matter where you begin, take small steps. Instead of concentrating on the total length of deployment, break up the time into manageable chunks. Military leaders and family readiness groups identify three stages of deployment:
Pre-deployment: receiving orders to day of departure
Deployment: day of departure to homecoming
Post-deployment and reunion: homecoming and reunion
Family Matters – The Stages of Deployment: This paper describes the process of deployment. The authors, all military psychiatrists, have integrated their professional and personal experiences into a cohesive “story,” readily identifiable by military leaders, soldiers and their families.2
Second, design your family action plans according to the three deployment stages. Part 1 of this four-part series focuses on pre-deployment suggestions and activities:
- Organizing talking time with your spouse
- Identifying community, religious and military resources and support personnel
- Talking with your children and answering their questions
- Planning the day of departure — no matter how often the date may change
- Saying goodbye
Third, be flexible. Change is part of the military lifestyle. Try to be patient if your spouse receives new orders, especially if the departure date is moved up. Do your best to adjust your plans.
How do we start?
Slowly! You want to prepare your children for mom’s or dad’s day of departure, but do not allow planning time to take away from family time. When you and your deploying spouse begin to discuss deployment, allow your children’s basic needs to keep you focused:
Children need to know you love them unconditionally. Tell your children you love them during times of both celebration and sadness.
Children need to feel a sense of security. Knowing mom and dad are there for them increases a child’s self-confidence and independence.
Children need to feel a sense of belonging. Getting your child involved in a school club or sports program helps them feel important.
Children need a clear set of guidelines and realistic boundaries. Children feel a sense of pride when they meet — or exceed — mom and dad’s expectations.
Younger children tend to mimic their parents’ mood and behavior. During a particularly stressful time, be aware of your children’s emotional and behavioral difficulties and help them through it. Calm reactions can be comforting to your child.
Children are quick to sense dishonesty. Talk openly and honestly with your child, but keep in mind his or her age and ability to understand.
Pre-deployment Strategies for You and Your Spouse
The best way to help your child cope with mom’s or dad’s deployment is to be sure you are ready to cope with the deployment. Preparation with your spouse will help the family deal with the uncertainties of any deployment stage. Before including your children in the family meetings, it is important to schedule planning time for just you and your deploying spouse. Try to include some of these preparation guidelines:
During your planning time, try to avoid distractions
– Tips for Parents Supporting the Child Whose Military Parent is Deploying: Before a deployment, military members are usually preoccupied with many preparatory activities. As a result, military members come home tired, perhaps late, and are already reluctant to address painful issues of impending separation. It is important to overcome this resistance and make plans with the family as far ahead as possible.
– Are you able to get a babysitter for your children?
– Can you occupy your children with toys, coloring books or a movie?
Take notes – Create major discussion areas with a simple, numbered list for each area. Stick to one major area at a time. Avoid becoming overwhelmed — jot down key words or phrases, elaborating only when something is not clear and you need to revisit the issue at a later time.
Work backwards. At the end of your meeting what do you hope to accomplish?– Discuss plans and solutions for child and household emergencies. Develop an initial list of resources and support personnel. Create a mini phonebook of important numbers. Help one another understand financial responsibilities. List a few follow-up steps for each of you.
Plan to attend a pre-deployment meeting together – Check with your military installation for dates and times. If you do not live near an installation, contact your service’s Family Support Center . They may be able to connect you to an ombudsman or other important personnel.
Discuss what you are both ready to share with your child – Keep in mind your child’s age and maturity level. Plan how to handle practical questions.
Don’t let disagreement stop communication – Take a break. If necessary, seek advice from a third party or a couple who has experienced similar situations.
Pre-deployment Strategies for Your Children
Including your children in the pre-deployment stage benefits the entire family. Not only do you prepare them for the deploying parent’s departure, you give them some control over family decisions, especially when they have little control over a large part of their lives: your deployment. During meetings with the kids, try to include both discussion and activities:
Make family meeting times a priority and try to avoid distractions
Discuss the deploying parent’s job and how important it is
Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Families During Military Deployment: View and download Sesame Street Workshop videos for children and families. This bilingual DVD kit is designed to help military families with children ages three to five cope with feelings, challenges and concerns experienced during various phases of deployment.
Allow your child to talk and ask questions.
When do you have to leave?
When are you coming back?
Where are you going?
What will you do?
Will you be safe?
Helping Children Cope During Deployment: This fact sheet contains useful information in the form of commonly asked questions followed by their responses. It is important to remember that while deployments are stressful, they also provide opportunities for families to grow closer and stronger.5
Talk with your kids about the importance of their responsibilities– Choose household chores together. Set a specific “schoolwork only” time.
How to Prepare our Children and Stay Involved in Their Education During Deployment [PDF 440KB]: The ideas in this booklet are flexible suggestions.
Brainstorm a list of fun activities to do before departure day – Schedule individual time for each child. Create calendars for special dates—including homecoming day. Help them make a list of trusting adults and phone numbers. Shop together for stationery, cards and cool stamps. If possible, splurge for a tape recorder, video camera or webcam. Set up e-mail accounts. Create a picture collage of your child and the deploying parent. Put a small photo of the deploying parent in a backpack tag. Go to school together. Talk with teachers. Stay for lunch
Make and exchange comfort items: a pillow, T-shirt or ball cap
When you and your spouse address the upcoming deployment, you might feel overwhelmed with the issues of separation. Planning for the day of departure, however, will give you both a clearer focus on how to help your child cope with deployment.