Being separated from a parent for an extended amount of time can be a traumatic experience for a child. Whether the reason is due to a military deployment or other job travel requirements, parents must be sensitive to the impact it will have on their children.
Of unique complexity to children, though, are military deployments which evoke complicated issues for children to understand, especially younger ones.
Because of this, it is of utmost importance that military parents, and their immediate family and friends, help guide children through the deployment process in order to make this life transition as smooth as possible. There are many ways to do this, with every child being unique. In honor of April being Month of the Military Child, below are a few ideas to help ease this transition for military children.
Take Care of Yourself and Your Spouse
Before you can do anything for your children, both parents must be certain to take care of themselves first and foremost. Having your responsibilities accounted for and your spouse taken care of will allow for focused attention on your children and their needs throughout the deployment.
- Be sure you are leaving your spouse with a plan for basic household and car needs. If something goes wrong with the plumbing, who do you call? Where is the best place for oil changes? Especially if you are the one normally taking care of such things, have a plan for places to go and people to call for help.
- Have childcare backups. Chances are good that your spouse will get sick during the course of a deployment. A night out will be desperately needed for a break from the kids. One of the children will get sick while your spouse is at work. Be sure to have a list of trusted caregivers to have on call to help out when those emergency situations arise.
- Don’t be too busy to schedule individual time with your spouse. There is so much to do before a deployment that it is easy to neglect this very important one-to-one time. These moments will need to last you both through the deployment, so make sure they are special.
- Eat well and get some sleep! It is so easy to forget to eat, getting too caught up with all there is to do, and end up neglecting yourself in the process. Be sure you and your spouse are rested and healthy in order to both be strong and ready for your difficult journeys ahead.
Open Lines of Honest Communication
Children will react individually to a parent’s absence. They all have their unique fears, their own questions, and will have different ways of expressing themselves. Prior to deployment, conduct frequent family meetings to discuss all that is going on and upcoming changes in the family. Allow the children to respectfully speak openly and honestly, keeping in mind children view the world very differently than adults and will not process things in the same way.
- Divide out roles and responsibilities. Have clear directions for chores each child is to do around the house and when they do them. Whatever responsibilities you currently have, assign them to different family members based on abilities. Explain the importance of each child doing his part to help out to keep the house running smoothly.
- If possible, talk to your children about what you will be doing while gone. No matter how big or small the assignment may seem, all service members are heroes and are doing their part to ensure the safety and freedom of our nation. Military children are absolutely a part of that and make their own sacrifices, as well. Talking to them about what they are helping to make happen will possibly encourage them and allow them to feel valued instead of resentful.
- When a child seems to be having a particularly difficult time with the deployment, seek help. There are many valuable resources out there to help children deal with the emotional struggles that accompany a deployment such as the Talk, Listen, Connect initiative driven by Sesame Street. You should also check on services and resources offered at your home military base. Additionally, encourage your kids to connect with other children of deployed parents, as oftentimes they will be the best therapy your child can get.
Give Personal Items for Remembrance
In those quiet moments when loved ones are missed the most, holding on to something belonging to the one you love is many times the best source of comfort. For children especially, they connect emotionally with items, hence the need for such things as stuffed animals and blankets. Getting creative with items such as below will help your child to feel continually loved by you long into the deployment.
- Plan out “open when” letters to be read by your child throughout the deployment. These are letters designed to only be opened when certain life events occur. Days to plan these “open when” letters could be events such as important sporting games, school graduations, birthdays, trips or vacations, holidays, or any other day when you know your child will be particularly missing you.
- Record your voice either in an audio book or stuffed animal. You have many options for this, including recording a special message inside a teddy bear to play whenever they want to hear your voice or recording yourself reading a book to them so they can listen to you read them a bedtime story every night.
- So your kids can give you a hug any time they want, Daddy Dolls® use a picture to create a stuffed version of you they can hold and carry around with them. You can easily customize and order these online using a favorite head-to-toe picture, which would be a fun activity to do with your children.
- Turning this around, set up a memory box for your children to use for you. For any special moment or event you miss while you are gone, have them place in this box one item that will relate back to these times so they can tell you all about it once you get back. Explain to them before you leave that you don’t want to miss any moment of their lives and you cannot wait to get back and see this box full of memories to share with them.
Schedule Your Daily Routines
Planning and consistency are critical to maintaining a smooth operation at home. Prior to deployment, work with your spouse to come up with a daily schedule for school, chores, extracurricular activities, and anything else that will be a part of the routine while you are gone.
- Write everything down in a calendar. Decide on a central location in the house where all family members can see the calendar easily and have them be a part of writing down their responsibilities and engagements. This can easily turn into a fun calendar learning activity for the younger children as well!
- To help stay connected with you while you are gone, consider setting a clock to the time zone where you will be stationed so the kids can think about what you will be doing at the same time they are going through their daily routines.
- While schedules and routines are important to keeping your home on track, there also are times when rules are made to be broken. Talk with your spouse ahead of time about those scenarios when it will be best for the family to blow off their responsibilities and focus on simply having fun together. Deployments are a difficult time for all involved and sometime necessitate a shifting of priorities.
Even though deployments can be some of the most stressful and challenging times for military families, there are ways to make it more manageable and less traumatic for all involved. What has been successful and beneficial for your kids to get them through a deployment? What ideas do you have for extended absences other than deployments?