©Rachel Robertson. Reprinted with permission.
Deployments are hard! So many San Diegans, including myself, have had to say goodbye to their loved ones this year, not knowing when they’ll see them again. While we are proud of our marines, sailors and soldiers, we still struggle with our feelings. Children are especially vulnerable because they often don’t know how to handle all the changes and uncertainties. Thankfully, there are things we can do to support them.
How Children React to Stress
Many of us who have coped with deployment before can vouch for the fact that our kids sometimes seem a bit restless, often moody and occasionally downright unmanageable. It is important to remember that these behaviors are often the way children express negative feelings like fear, worry, anxiety, and loneliness. Children show us how they are feeling by their actions more than their words so we must pay careful attention to body language and behavior. While parents need not to allow inappropriate behavior, simply punishing these behaviors won’t stop them and may actually compound them.
What Kids Need
Inevitably families change when someone deploys. Routines change and the mood of the parent at home changes. The American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Psychologists have many suggestions for parents and school personnel to focus on when supporting a child of a deployed parent.
Consistency and Routine - Above all else kids need routine, consistency and structure during this time. They are feeling insecure because of all of the uncertainties regarding the deployment and they need a predictable routine and home life.
Good Communication – Kids often have a lot of questions during deployment. Daily, honest (yet age appropriate) discussions about feelings (yours and theirs) can help ease tension and relieve concerns.
Attention and Good Times - This is a great time to plan special events and start new hobbies. Children can feel neglected during deployments because one parent is gone and the other parent can is busy and stressed. Children should have many opportunities to feel loved and special during the deployment.
Healthy Lifestyle -Not only do children need to have fun but they need to be healthy. They should maintain healthy diets, have opportunities for exercise and not spend all their time in front of the TV.
To Be a Kid - Do not discuss your fears in depth with them and do not expect them to take the place of your spouse. Also, be careful about how much exposure your child has to the news. When my husband was gone I was glued to CNN and only realized I needed to limit my TV watching when my four year old asked me, “Why is that building blowed up?”
Reassurance – In deployment situations children often feel a loss of control and stability; they have experienced a major change and could do nothing to prevent it from occurring. Reminding them that you will always love them no matter what and that you will survive this deployment together will help ease their anxiety.
A Good Behavior Plan- While it is important to understand that misbehavior during deployment can be a result of negative feelings, it is also important to set limits and have consequences. Parents can eliminate a lot of problems by making a chart and pre-determining consequences for specific behaviors. For example, if you don’t put your bike away you will lose bike privileges for one day. Parents can also set up positive behavior controls such as sticker charts or marble jars.
Physical and Emotional Expressions of Love – Hugs, Hive Fives and “I Love You” go a long way in helping children cope with difficult situations.
Activities to Do
There are many simple things the parent at home can do to have fun with their children and make this time memorable. Here are some examples:
Have Family Fun Nights – Have each child take turns selecting an activity.
Take turns planning dinners for each other.
Keep a family timeline during the deployment on a large piece of paper taped on the wall.
Make a video of the family during deployment. Plan, edit and produce it just like a movie.
Have board game tournaments.
Keep a scrapbook.
Buy a mini-tape recorder and record messages to the deployed parent. Make sure they have a recorder too so they can send messages back.
Check out a copy of the Guinness Book of World records and try to beat some of the records.
Draw a circle on a map with an eighty-mile radius from your house. Pick a new place to explore within that circle each weekend.
Teach your kids to dance.
Journaling can be one of the most effective ways to help kids handle deployment. It allows them to explore and learn about themselves in a personal way. According to research done by the American Psychologists Association, journaling increases mental and physical health and is a very effective way to turn angry and confused feelings in to clear thoughts. I created Deployment Journal for Kids to help guide military kids through the journaling process during a parent's deployment. See related article - Kids and Journaling and tips for kids about journaling on DeploymentKids.com.
According to Karen Pavlicin, author of Surviving Deployment: A guide for military families, it is also important for parents to take care of themselves so that they may take better care of their children. "It's like the safety instructions you get on an airline," says Pavlicin. "Secure your own mask before assisting others." That means getting plenty of exercise, sleep, and healthy food. Your lives are already in such chaos from all the changes in a deployment, establishing a daily routine to ensure you get the basics can go a long way toward keeping yourself and your kids less stressed.
Sometimes parents struggle with this and find themselves taking out their frustrations on their children. If you ever find yourself doing this it is important to understand you are not alone and you must seek help. Contact your family services center, key volunteer or ombudsman for guidance.
No doubt, helping kids through a deployment is a challenge but it doesn’t have to be unbearable. Having a plan, sharing feelings, enjoying special times and enlisting the help of family, friends and support services will make things easier on your child and you!