You’ve heard it said that children are resilient, and this is true. However, when a parent is on the battlefront and away from home, children face a unique form of stress that few can understand. Not only do they have to worry that mom or dad will be hurt or killed, but they have to deal with living in a single-parent home, or moving in with relatives they normally don’t live with. If you have children you know who are going through the process of deployment, or if your own children are facing this reality, here are some tips that can help make the process easier.
1. Talk to Them
First, talk to the children about what is about to happen. Make sure that they understand they did nothing wrong. While the idea of combat is scary, it’s important for them to know, at least a little, where their parent is going and why. Use maps, photos and videos to show a little about military life and where mom or dad is going to be. Be honest, but do not paint a dire picture.
2. Talk About the Deployed Parent
Keep the deployed parent part of daily conversations. Tell stories about them, share jokes they loved or point out items that were gifts from the parent. When you have daddy’s favorite dinner, remind the children that it was his favorite. When you put out the Christmas tree that mom so carefully decorated every year, talk about how she would want it done. Above all, remind the child regularly how much the missing parent loves him or her.
3. Keep Routines in Place
When a parent leaves, it’s easy for the other parent to give up routines for a while. This can be quite harmful to the children. Try to keep the routines in place as much as possible, so that home life remains as stable as it can with a parent missing.
4. Count Down the Time
If you have a general idea of when the parent will return, create a count down. This will build anticipation for the return. Of course, it’s common that you have no idea when the deployment will officially end. You can create the feeling of a countdown by counting up – add a piece of candy to a jar every day dad or mom is gone, or add to a paper chain. Then, present the chain or candy at the reunion as part of your gifts and decorations.
5. Be Cautious with Media
Media often displays military life as fraught with danger. While it is, you don’t want your children dwelling on this. Be careful about letting them watch shows that depict military action. This can drain their emotions and cause unnecessary worries.
6. Alert Teachers and Other Authorities
It’s common for children to act out when their parent is deployed, so make sure teachers, coaches and other authorities know what is going on. This will equip them to show a little more support when the child is having a problem with behavior or showing signs of anxiety.
7. Let Children Express Feelings
If children keep their feelings about the deployment bottled up, they will eventually come out in an explosion. This is unhealthy. Give children a place to express their feelings, whether it is a journal, play therapy or simply heart to heart chats. Hearing their feelings can be scary to the other parent, but it’s vital that they have the room to express.
8. Be There for Comfort
Above all, be there for comfort and reassurance whenever your child needs it, even when they are acting out during this stressful time. Remember how much stress you feel, and know that this is amplified in the mind of your child.
Children need extra care and support during deployment. Hold them close, reassure them and listen to them, and you will help them weather this challenging time well.