Helping Children Cope with Deployment
Helping a child feel safe and cope with their feelings about a parent's deployment, as well as understand how the deployment will impact their life is important. The following are some suggestions that you may want to try with your child as he or she adjusts to the challenges of a parent/caregiver's deployment. Keep in mind that you know your child best and let their behavior be your guide. Make sure to check out the additional summaries for specific ideas for each age group:
Parenting Ideas for All Phases of Deployment
Maintain routines. During a parent's deployment it's important to maintain your family's daily routine. In the event that your child's routine will need to be changed, talk to them about the changes ahead of time. This will allow them to think about the changes and ask any questions.
Stay calm and in-control. When sharing deployment information or news it's important to stay calm and be reassuring. Children will model your behavior and reactions, and are learning from you how to cope with difficult situations and strong emotions.
Talk with your kids. Listen to their concerns and find out what they know first. Ask them what they think. Answer their questions truthfully but at their age level. Keep conversations brief with younger children. Not all kids or teens are good at talking, so talk while you're doing some activity together and their hands are busy.
Monitor media exposure to war and terrorism. Be aware of individual children's sensitivities and developmental level. Protect children from anxiety-provoking information, including overheard conversations and media coverage related to war. Help older children and teens balance their interest in news coverage with the need for anxiety-free time. Talk together about media stories your child encounters.
Teach appropriate emotional expression. Remind children to use their words when expressing their feelings rather than acting out those feelings. Teach younger kids "feeling words" and connect those words to their behavior, for example: "I see you're hitting the floor and stomping around — you must be mad." With older kids, this idea works just as well, for example: "You're yelling at everyone about losing your study guide — are you stressed about this test?" Teach and model "I-language," for example: "I get worried when you don't call me because I'm unsure if you're safe." Suggest keeping a journal and writing down thoughts and feelings to adolescents. Younger kids can be encouraged to draw a picture to show how they feel, and then talk with you about their picture. Young children often work out their feelings in play, so unless they are not being safe, allow them to act out their concerns during their playtime. For additional "models" of kids talking about feelings check out our 4Real Videos.
Before Deployment Parenting Ideas
Inform your children about the deployment. Develop a plan with the at-home caregiver about when and how you want to tell your child this news. Hold regular family meeting to discuss the deployment. Some parents find it helpful to explore the Where Are You Going activity together as a family. If operations security allows, tell your children where you are going, why you are leaving and when you'll return. It's important to be honest. Research suggests older kids will be less stressed if you talk with them about general deployment issues. Keep the information at the child's developmental level — the younger the child the less they'll understand time frames or ideas like war or national security. Give even young kids a simple rationale for being gone. Consider not saying you are "going to work" — younger children may then think anyone who "goes to work" will disappear from their life. If you are a father and about to deploy avoid saying "you're the man of the family now" to older boys or teens. As the parent, you are still the "man of the family" and all children want to be reassured of that fact. Elicit help from your children during your absence, but don't expect them to be a "parent." Since younger kids may feel like it's their fault that you are leaving, watch for those feelings and reassure your child they did nothing wrong.
Reassure your child about safety concerns. School age kids in particular worry about safety — theirs, yours and things being "ok" at home. Tell children who will take care of them. Reassure your child about your safety and emphasize that you are trained to do your job which helps keep you safe. If possible allow your children to help you pack since kids will be reassured you have everything you need.
Kids have a job too! While you are away emphasize that your child's job is to do well in school, help out at home and be cooperative. Tell them that when they do their job they help support your mission.
Create a discipline plan. Together with the at-home caretaker, sit down with teens and school-age children to create a discipline plan and allow input from everyone. Make sure that the at-home caretaker agrees with this plan — they will be the one enforcing it. As the deployed parent, your primary parenting job will be to notice all the things your child is doing right while you're gone — and telling them!
Make a communication plan. Before deploying make sure your children have the tools they need to stay in touch with you (email, mailing address, a phone number). Reassure kids that you may sometimes be unable to contact or respond to them as planned.
Create a support system for the at-home caretaker. The better the at-home parent copes with the deployment, the better the kids will cope too. Before deployment map out a support system with friends, family and your community.
Create support systems for your children. Children often try to shield the at-home parent from any stress they are experiencing and not burden the parent with their concerns. Be proactive and let your children know it is okay to reach out to other people if they need help. Compile a list of family and friends (phone numbers, email addresses) and practice making contact with these individuals together. Consider enrolling younger children in mentor programs like Big Brother or Big Sister, or request a mentor through community organizations. Find out if the school has a support group for students with a deployed parent.
Create "comfort" objects. Before deployment create a memento for each child, including teenagers. Record yourself reading books, create a personal photo album of you with your child or allow children to pick a personal item of yours to keep with them. Consider having a "daddy doll" or "flat mommy" made for younger kids. Arrange pictures of you around the house (even if you are camera shy — remember, you're doing this for them). Write up cards or buy presents "from you" for anticipated special occasions you'll miss.
Tell the school or daycare. Teachers will be grateful to be informed of the challenges students may face during a deployment. They can also provide additional support for your child at school. If you worry about how the school will use this knowledge, ask for a team meeting with the principal or assistant principal, school counselor and your child's teacher(s). Depending on your child's comfort level, some parents and teachers find it helpful for the deploying parent to visit with the class about your job and military life in general.
Say "good-bye." It might seem easier to "disappear" but this does little to reassure children about the predictability and consistency of important adults in their life.
During Deployment Parenting Ideas
Maintain routines and traditions. Keep regular schedules for meals, bedtimes, school pick up, etc. Celebrate holidays and special occasions just as you did before the deployment. Go on vacations. If routines need to change talk about the changes and encourage questions. Younger kids might enjoy reading our Storybook about routines and changes at home with a parent being gone.
Let kids be kids. Protect both study and relaxation time for children. Older kids often have to assume some additional responsibilities with the departure of a parent, but be clear in both your direct and indirect messages to them that school is their priority. Insist that they spend time with their friends and quiet time for themselves. All ages of kids might find the Games on our website fun and relaxing.
Spend time with your kids. With all the "hats" you're wearing now as the at-home caregiver, taking time to just hold or play with your child can be a challenge. Kids need to be reassured and you can do this by giving them your undivided attention. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers will need to be held or hugged often. Spending time with all ages of children one-on-one is actually cost effective — the more reassured a child feels now (even teens!), the less time you'll spend on "acting out" behavior later. There are some ideas on our site for activities you can do with your children, for example make a scrumptious meal with Recipes from around the world or create a funky Arts and Crafts project.
Be consistent with discipline. Follow the discipline plan that the family created before the deployment. While it may not be realistic to keep discipline exactly the same, children need rules, structure, and consistency. Decide on the rules and stick to them. Make expectations clear for your children and emphasize how their choices matter. Older kids and teens might enjoy our Crossroads Videos as they consider the consequences of their decisions. If you are the deployed parent trust the at-home caretaker in their disciplinary role so you are able to focus on the positive activities that are taking place in your child's life.
Encourage participation in extra-curricular activities. Children who are involved in sports, clubs or community organizations adapt easier to having a deployed parent or caregiver. Check out our Parent Resource Guide for organizations that provide grants for clubs, sports, fine arts and other community activities.
Keep your children informed. Knowledge about upcoming events or simply talking about the deployment can ease a child's anxiety and fear. Keep in mind that children should be given information about the deployment that is age appropriate.
As the at-home caregiver, take care of yourself. Don't be afraid to ask for help and when help is offered, consider accepting. Ask extended family or friends to help out with a specific task. Children need to learn that you (just like them) are important and valuable and need time to relax by yourself. For the deployed parent, find ways to be supportive of the at-home caregiver. Communicate your love and caring for your spouse. Even for divorced couples, remember that the more supported the at-home parent feels, the better your kids will cope with deployment.
Help children stay connected to the deployed parent. Create scrapbooks, videos, cards or pictures to share (see the Scrapbook and Getting Connected for some ideas). Display pictures around the house of the deployed parent and mention the deployed parent's name often in normal conversation. Some families create a "countdown" calendar as a way of helping children visualize their parent's return. In addition, encourage children throughout the week to write on post-it notes interesting things they would like to discuss when the deployed parent phones home. As the deployed parent, send letters, photos, pictures or emails directly to your children and during phone calls praise children's efforts and show an interest in their activities. Consider playing an interactive game online or split up game boards (such as Battleship) and play long-distance.
Homecoming Parenting Ideas
Allow your children time to warm up to you. Infants or toddlers may pull away, cry or act afraid of you, so anticipate that they will need time to get used to you again. Talk to them, laugh with them, and touch them gently as you get reacquainted. If possible, bring a soft stuffed toy and use it as an "ice breaker." It's important to get down to their level, speak in a soft voice, and let them come to you. With teenagers, don't force them to welcome you home but initiate conversation and take interest in the changes that have occurred in their life. Express your joy at being home with them again.
Talk about your deployment with your children. If you feel comfortable, talk about the goals you achieved or people you met while deployed but not dangerous situations or missions. Reassure your children how difficult it was for you to miss milestones in their life. Tell your kids if you need time to adjust to being home and need some quiet time to yourself. Give your children a simple explanation such as "It was always noisy where I was and I never slept very well, so I need to sleep more now." Otherwise, children may think they did something wrong or you're upset with them. Children will be concerned that you may have to deploy again so it's important to emphasize that you are home now and you will tell them if you must leave again.
Expect changes at home. Remember change is inevitable. Expect to see these changes in your children, spouse, and even yourself. Don't expect things to return exactly to how they were before your deployment. Avoid making drastic changes to the new routines and rules. Adolescents especially will be reluctant to give up the responsibilities and independence they've accumulated in your absence. Sit down and talk about options with them. Allow your spouse to be the disciplinarian as you settle back into family life and get reacquainted with your children.
Getting Reacquainted. With children under a year old it's important to hold them, bathe them, and change their diapers — all great opportunities for your child to learn the look and feel of you. With school-aged kids and teenagers, look through pictures together of times you missed while deployed. Ask for details and listen to their stories. Get involved in their daily activities — great conversations can happen while you're driving your child to school, practice or an extracurricular activity.
Get involved in your child's education. Your interest in your child's education sends a powerful message that you care about them and value their education. Go by the school and meet a few teachers or coaches. Set up a parent-teacher conference to go over how your child is performing in their classes.
The National Center for Telehealth and Technology.(n.d.). Families with Kids. Retrieved May 23, 2011 from AfterDeployment.org http://www.afterdeployment.org/topics-families-kids.
Chandra, A., Lara-Cinisomo, S., Jaycos, L.S., Tanielian, T., Burns, R. M., Ruder, T. & Han, B. (2009). Children on the homefront: the experience of children from military families. Pediatrics, 125(1), 12-23. Retrieved April 18, 2011 from www.pediatrics.org.
Department of Defense. (2010). Report on the impact of deployment of members of the Armed Forces on their dependent children. Retrieved April 18, 2011 from http://www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil/12038/Project%20Documents/MilitaryHOMEFRONT/Service%20Providers/DoD%20Conferences /MFPP/MHF_page/Report_Impact_of_Deployment_Dependent_Children.pdf.
Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress.(n.d.). Courage to care: helping children cope during deployment. retrieved May 30, 2011 from http://www.cstsonline.org/wp-content/resources/CTC_children_helping_during_deployment.pdf.
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