Providing a healthy and supportive environment for children is among the biggest challenges of deployment for military families. Support for kids during deployment begins with these four essentials: preparation before departure, stability throughout deployment, opportunities to talk about feelings, and positive ways to put feelings and concerns into action.
Begin Before Goodbye
Kids begin feeling the effects of deployment even before their service member parent departs, so conversations between parents and kids about what they think and feel about deployment should begin before it’s time to say goodbye.
“Like their parents, kids have fears and anxieties about this experience,” says Karen Pavlicin, author of Surviving Deployment: A Guide for Military Families. “In the lead-up to deployment, involve them in appropriate ways. Be sure they feel included and that their feelings are heard.”
Kids begin feeling the effects of deployment even before their service member parent departs.
It’s also important to hear kids’ concerns about deployment to clear up any misunderstandings or any worries they have that may be unfounded or disproportionate to the situation.
“Ask them what they are thinking about,” says Karen. “You may be able to calm some of their worries right away.”
Before departure, give children opportunities to spend one-on-one time with the deploying parent.
“Departure day is usually busy and emotional,” says Karen. “Take time together before that crazy day to give kids a chance to ask questions, talk, and have fun. The good memories will help them cope with tough days following the goodbyes.”
Provide Sense of Stability
Children also benefit from stability at home to maintain a sense of security during deployment. Something as simple as maintaining daily routines can reassure kids they can depend on their family, even when one parent is absent. Julie Provost, a military spouse blogger at Soldier’s Wife Crazy Life says children need to know their parents are always ready to support them.
Something as simple as maintaining daily routines can reassure kids they can depend on their family, even when one parent is absent.
“One of the things I do to give my kids a sense of security and stability when my husband is gone,” says Julie, “is by letting them know it is okay to come to me anytime they are upset, scared or just unsure about what is going on. I want them to know I am here for them one hundred percent.”
Pay Attention to Feelings
Sometimes, even with a supportive parent available to listen, kids find it difficult to talk about their worries or emotions about deployment, or even to know what their feelings are. For those times, journaling can be a useful activity, says Rachel Robertson, author of Deployment Journal for Kids and an expert in early childhood development for Bright Horizons Family Solutions.
“Keeping a journal is a proven tool for helping children manage stress and process complex emotions,” she says.
Children may be feeling emotions they can’t understand or communicate.
Children may be feeling emotions they can’t understand or communicate, says Rachel. A journal gives them a place to express their feelings and sort them out.
Journaling is also an activity easily tailored to each child’s age and ability. It can be completely personal or interactive with parents. Preschoolers can draw pictures and decorate their journal pages. Older children can write stories, songs, or poems, as well as daily happenings and thoughts.
Rachel emphasizes that playtime is important for children too, offering another way for kids to process their thoughts and feelings in a concrete way.
“Play is the way children process life,” she says. “They don’t often have the words to talk about how they feel, so one way to find out about what is on their minds and what they’re feeling is to observe their play.”
Find Ways to Take Action
Children are encouraged when they have positive ways to put their feelings and concerns into action. They could take action by volunteering in the community or place of worship, helping with household chores, or creating care packages for their deployed parent.
Karen says kids also enjoy being able to reach out to a deployed parent in meaningful and concrete ways. Writing letters, drawing, painting, and making homemade gifts provide creative outlets for kids and ways to communicate love and support for an absent parent.
To support kids during deployment, offer them positive ways to put their feelings and concerns into action.
Children can also keep a list of questions or news to share with a deployed parent at the next phone call or video chat. When kids have a question but can’t talk to their parent, writing it down gives them a place to put their thoughts. Having a list of topics may also help alleviate the shyness some kids feel when they get on the phone or video chat.
Even activities not directly connected to deployment provide parents and kids with more opportunities to interact, offering a window into how kids are coping. Keeping daily routines, journaling, playing, and other activities are comforting to kids and also encourage ongoing, daily communication between parents and children.
“Give children plenty of reassurance,” Karen says. ”Throughout deployment they need to know your family is united, even when you’re apart.”
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