A military deployment comes with a lot of stress and a long list of things to do before departure. For a military parent who is about to deploy, the emotional strain of leaving a family and the distress that it will put on the children can be especially stressful.
Children don’t often understand why mommy or daddy has to go away. They might blame themselves for the absence or assume responsibility for the well-being of the family while their parent is gone. They may also act out or fall into a depression due to the parent’s absence.
Regardless of the child’s age, the biggest impact a deployment has on a child is emotional, which can manifest in a number of ways. When you are the parent being deployed, how do you stay engaged in your child’s life and relieve some of that emotional strain for your child?
Before deployment, talk to your child’s teacher, school counselor, and principal. Let them know you are being deployed, for how long, and share any necessary information they may need from you. By being aware of this emotional strain on your child, the educators can help your child cope at school. Your child may need quiet time to him or herself or extra attention that the teacher, counselor, or even principal may be able to provide.
Talk to your child’s teacher about upcoming class projects. You will then be able to ask about those projects when you talk to your child during your deployment. It will also give him or her something to work on so he or she can have an update for you the next time you communicate. Ask about your child’s grades and how he or she is doing in school.
If possible, continue to email your child’s teacher while you’re away. Consider it a partnership—let the teacher help you monitor your child’s academic and social well-being while you’re gone. He or she observes your child’s behavior at school and can alert you and your partner to any changes so that you can help your child.
Communication is essential during your deployment. Depending on your accessibility to technology and the Internet, you can use platforms like Skype or Google Hangouts to have face-to-face check-ins with your child. Send regular emails and photos when possible. Describe where you are and tell stories of your adventures. What might seem mundane to you will help color your child’s imagination and most importantly, let him or her know that you are okay.
Not all days will be good days for conversations during your deployment, but it’s important to stay positive in front of your child. Come up with a code word for you and your partner to use on those tough days in case the conversation needs to remain light and short or if you are free to talk openly.
Have your partner or child’s caregiver maintain as much normalcy and routine as possible. Children thrive on routines, so keeping one in place while you’re away will help your child cope. Ask your partner to plan events and help your child stay busy to pass the time.
If your child needs to be disciplined by your partner or caregiver, be supportive of your counterpart. You may not be there to implement the discipline, but your opinion still counts a lot both to the caregiver and to your child. The disciplining will be more effective if you are behind it.
Although you will not physically be there, try to surround your child with your presence before you leave. Put photos of you with the family and with your child throughout the house. Leave a special photo for each child to have in his or her bedroom. Before you leave, make a gift for each other—the activity serves as a bonding opportunity and you can each keep a token from the other during your time apart.
When you return from deployment there will be an adjustment period for both you and your family. Take time for yourself to readjust to your environment. Use the military’s resources and support for you, your partner, and your child as you acclimate back to daily life at home. Spend time with your family as well as one-on-one time with your child before attending or organizing welcome home parties. Your child will need to feel that he or she is a priority and that you have returned as his or her mommy or daddy.
There are many resources you can use to help with every phase of deployment, including Military One Source, Military Child Education Coalition, and the Family Readiness Centers available at military installations.
A deployment away from your child will never be easy on either of you, but hopefully some of these ideas will help make it a little less stressful.
Thank you for your service.