Preparing for a deployment is an emotional and stressful series of events. Trying to navigate the all the stressors of deployment with school age children is especially difficult because they know exactly what’s going on. Plus, there is a ramp up of activity – the work-ups and never-ending laundry – plus labeling or not labeling a massive gear bomb that rivals any toy pile. The active duty parent is in and out of the home, and it feels like they are already gone when they are still technically home. Then comes the deployment – months of separation from the deployment parent, potentially in harm’s way, without communication for periods of time. For children ages 5-10, this time period is confusing and difficult. The reality is that there isn’t a magical description to make this period easier to understand or navigate. Every child is unique. Like parenting, there is not a one size fits all for navigating deployment as a family, but some or maybe all of these tips might be helpful.
Share as much as you can about the upcoming schedule. Share that there will be changes in the schedule. While this isn’t perfect, it provides the framework for expectations. While the adults understand that there is a Semper Gumby attitude that needs to happen with deployments, children need to be told about the ebbs and flows. Be honest and explain what you can.
Let Them Pace The Conversation
Be ready for questions about deployment will come out of nowhere. And the questions will be tough. “Will Dad get hurt?”, “Will Mom be able to Facetime?”, “Where will we live when he is gone?”, “How long will she be gone for?” You may not have answers for all of these questions. Be honest. It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” Start the conversation as early as you can, before the deployment occurs. Involve both parents if you are able. Let your child be the guide, so you can address their fears, worries and thoughts as they come up.
Give them a journal. Whether they are feeling sad, happy or angry, encourage them to write down their feelings and their questions. Consider asking your child to share their journal with you from time to time. When they are ready to share that, have them put it in a safe place – like under your pillow in your bed (where siblings won’t get to it).
Acknowledge the Emotional Rollercoaster
Just like adults dealing with the emotions felt when the active duty partner is gone, the child feels the same. But they do not understand the why. The call to serve of this all-volunteer military force is immense, and not one that the child signed up for. Be there to say – “Yes, I get it. I miss Mommy/Daddy too.” Be honest, share that there are days when the emotions of sadness and anger are there for you, and acknowledge that they feel it too. Validation is needed by children of all ages, and by us adults.
A wall providing information that they can get on their own is very helpful. A map, a clock, and a calendar provide information on where, when and what time their deployed parent is. Pictures of them with their deployed parent can be reminders of that love and connection despite the distance. We added a goal list to our wall. Creating goals to accomplish during deployment, and what goals we wanted to accomplish once the family was together again. This created fun milestones and goals and provided distraction from the sadness.
Consider setting up a space for each child to just be alone. If children share their bedrooms, maybe consider setting up a corner of a room. I set up a corner with a box of “quiet” items – coloring book, crayons, playdough, a craft, a small LEGO set. The agreement was that when she needed a place to go to not be bothered, she could go to that corner of the room and just be. No questions asked. Usually no interruptions, unless it was time for school. This allowed her to be alone when she needed to deal with something she wasn’t ready to put into words.
Know your Local Resources
Is there a Military Family Life Counselor (MFLC) on your local base or at your unit? In your child’s school? At their after-school care? Is there an after-school program geared toward children who have a deployed parent? If you don’t know, ask your neighborhood or the school counselor? These individuals are trained with skills crafted around military children, can provide tips and guidelines for you as the parent and perhaps be an extra person for your school-age child to talk to. See if there is an ASYMCA near you with programming that would interest you or your child.
Ask them what helps them feel calm and safe. Maybe they find that painting helps them feel calm and protected. If so, consider setting up an art space or maybe a box with watercolors that they can grab when they are feeling stressed or worried. Elementary school age children definitely know how they feel, but do not always know what causes that feeling. The ability to make that connection takes higher thought processes that are not always developed in their brain. By asking them what helps them stay calm, it puts them in charge of recognizing when they need a break. It may not work with a first grader, but a fourth grader may recognize it. This was immensely helpful during our recent deployment when the connection of acting out and stress was not made on my part, but watching her reach for her art box demonstrated that connection.
Utilize the United Through Reading (UTR) or the USO Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program and/or record videos saying hello. This can be helpful not only for your child but also for your deployed spouse who will know they are providing a comfort and reminder of their love to their children. During our recent deployment my husband was so glad to be able to pick books for our children and read them. This really depends on how remote your deployed spouse is and how frequently they may have to move but if it is available, it’s wonderful for kids this age.
Children are unique, and each deployment is not one-size-fits all. Not every tip will work with every child, and with each deployment the needs of each child will change. May the Deployment Gnome leave you alone, and the emotional roller-coaster be a kiddie friendly one.
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