Deployment can disrupt the entire family, but they bring special challenges for children.
Military kids notice the seismic shift in their lives when a parent leaves, but can’t always verbalize or process their feelings about it. The responsibility of guiding them through the rollercoaster of emotions that a deployment brings often falls on the military spouse. But where should you start? Here are six ways to help children cope when a parent is away on deployment — and specific resources that can help provide comfort, reassurance, stability and support.
1. Get creative.
“When will daddy be home?” is a tricky question — how do you help children understand how long six months is? A visual aid is often a great solution. You might want to try a deployment countdown jar. Fill a jar with chocolate kisses or special notes from daddy, one for every day he’ll be gone. Take one out each night, and by the time he’s home, the jar will be empty. Or, make your own paper chains and hang them around the house, removing a loop each day. Pinterest is a great place to find more creative ideas for counting down.
2. Read books about deployment, separation.
Books are a wonderful way to help children make sense of something that feels overwhelming and abstract. Fortunately, there are a lot of great ones to choose from, and many are geared toward military families. Here are a few to try:
- “I’ll Lend You My Daddy” by Becky King
- “Brave Like Me” by Barbara Kerley
- “My Mom’s Boots” by Elizabeth Gordon
- “Night Catch” by Brenda Ehrmantraut
- “A Paper Hug” by Stephanie Skolmoski
- “Superheroes’ Kids: When Dad is Deployed” by Heather Carson
- “The Soldiers’ Night Before Christmas” by Christine Ford and Trish Holland
Of course, nothing compares to hearing mommy’s voice, so you might record her reading some favorite bedtime stories before she leaves.
3. Get them involved.
Deployments mean giving up a sense of control, and allowing your child to help empowers them with a feeling of purpose. They can put together care packages with you — shop for treats, pack them, write a special note to tuck inside, and take the package to the post office.
Come up with fun themes for holidays and make decorating the box an art project. They can also brainstorm and plan a list of special “dates” they want to go on with their deployed parent after homecoming.
4. Meet their need for connection.
Every child responds differently to a parent being gone, but one thing they will always crave is connection. This might look like a customized HUG-A-HERO® doll, or a personalized quilt or pillowcase with family pictures from Operation Kid Comfort. You could also have the deployed parent take a special small toy with them and take pictures of it in various poses and places they visit. Compile the pictures into an album at home for an entertaining, no-pressure way to engage and reconnect.
5. Stick to a deployment routine.
When a family member is gone, the entire household rhythm can be upended. It’s OK to take some time to adjust and find your footing, but children thrive with a routine, even though it won’t look exactly like the one you had before. Figure out what works for you and then be consistent — when your children know what to expect, it will make them feel safe and reassured even in the midst of change and transition.
6. Reach out, then accept the help.
Let teachers, friends, family and even professionals know about the deployment so they can step in and support. Every military spouse knows it takes a village, and deployments are a time when leaning on that village is not only helpful, it’s essential. This might look like special programs or attention at school, dedicated sessions with a therapist, meal trains or offers to babysit, or frequent visits from loving family members.