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Deployment: What to Expect from Your Child and How to Respond

A military deployment is a very stressful time in the lives of military families. Separation, changes in routines, and the anxiety and worry for the deployed parent are just some of the ways that families are affected. Understanding how your child may respond to the deployment and knowing how to help him cope with being separated from a parent are important ways you can help your child build the skills needed during this difficult time.

Understanding behaviors and how to respond

Infants: Infants and very young children are not old enough to understand why their parent is absent; however, they feel the result of the ongoing changes in their lives. The absence of the deployed parent and the increased stress on the care-giving parent may cause your child to become fussier than usual and more difficult to soothe. Established routines will change because of the absence of the deployed parent, and this change may temporarily affect sleep and feeding routines.

What you can do

  • Seek help from family members, trusted neighbors, and other friends in your life to help out around the house, or with grocery shopping and running errands so you can focus as much of your time as possible on your new baby. Establish and maintain routines as much as possible. Providing a dependable schedule and responding to your child’s needs consistently are essential to his continued health and development.

Toddlers: Routines are very important to toddlers because they provide a sense of security. During a military deployment, routines change as the care-giving parent is adjusting to the deployed parent’s absence. As a result, your child may feel frightened, confused, and/or frustrated. Your toddler may revert to old behaviors such as bedwetting or thumb sucking. She may become sad and withdrawn or even become clingier than usual. Some children may begin to kick, bite, or yell at the care-giving parent, other children, family members, or others in their lives.

What you can do

  • Anticipate changes in behavior, but reinforce your usual discipline strategies. Provide lots of love and attention to toddlers and maintain normal routines and schedules as much as possible. When your toddler kicks, bites, or yells, firmly let him know that it is not acceptable behavior. Provide discipline that is consistent, fair, and age appropriate. Enforcing a time-out that is approximately the same numbers of minutes as the age of the child or temporarily removing a favorite toy are both examples of appropriate discipline for toddlers.

Preschool-Age Children: Preschool-age children are old enough to feel their parent’s absence on a daily basis but are usually too young to fully understand why their parent is not present. Some children may even feel that they have done something to cause their parent to leave. Your child may display challenging behaviors at this time that might include more frequent tantrums, a refusal to speak to the deployed parent, and “acting out.”

What you can do

  • Provide healthy ways in which your preschooler can voice her feelings such as coloring, drawing, and other crafts. Let your child know it’s OK to miss the deployed parent and respect her feelings of confusion, fear, and even anger. Let her know it is not acceptable to hurt others physically or with words, even when emotions are high. Don’t force your preschooler to speak with the deployed parent. Provide other ways for your child to communicate with the deployed parent such as recording video or audio messages. You might even help her write a letter or draw pictures.

School-Age Children: Most school-age children are mature enough to have a basic understanding of their parent’s deployment, and many children feel a sense of pride at having a parent who is serving in the armed forces. Because of their increased maturity, school-age children are susceptible to the typical stress that a care-giving adult faces during a deployment including worrying about the deployed parent’s safety.The stress may cause headaches, stomachaches, moodiness, sleep disruptions, irritability, and/or low energy.

What you can do

  • While your child may experience periods when going to school, participating in extracurricular activities, and even performing day-to-day chores are difficult, expectations and responsibilities are still important. Talk to your child about what he is feeling and don’t be afraid to share your own feelings. Maintain and share a positive outlook about the safety and well-being of the deployed parent and your family’s resilience. Limit exposure to media outlets that may increase anxiety. Ensure your child is getting adequate rest and nutrition. Encourage keeping a journal, drawing, playing sports, or seeking another healthy outlet to express feelings.

Teenagers: Many teenagers adjust quickly to the deployment of a parent and may even take on some of the roles of the deployed parent. Sometimes it may seem that your teenager is handling the changes better than you are as the parent. However, this “cool” exterior can mask the feelings and ambivalence he may feel internally. Most teens have access to media and are informed about the realities of the deployment. Your teen may feel extremely concerned for the safety and well-being of the deployed parent and protective of the care-giving parent. He may attempt to hide feelings of fear, loneliness, and anger.

What you can do

  • Keep lines of communication open by taking time every day to talk with your child and maintain a genuine interest in his day-to-day life. This connection will make it easier to have difficult conversations and open the door for your teenager to confide in you and to share how he is feeling. Ask your teen how he feels and what he has heard about the deployment. Help your child maintain a positive outlook about the safety of the deployed parent and your child’s ability to cope while the deployed parent is away.

Additional Resources

Children’s books and resources for children affected by deployment: A listing of resources for parents including books for children with deployed parents, deployment kits for children and families, and deployment resource websites.

Helping children cope with deployment – VA: A resource for parents with information and tips about what to expect from children coping with a parent being deployed, how to talk about it, and signs to monitor how your child is dealing with deployment of a parent.

Planning for deployment with young children: A handout from Fleet and Family Support Centers of Hampton Roads with tips and ideas for parents to help prepare younger kids before and during a parent’s deployment.

Military OneSource: An online resource for families facing deployment, covering a wide variety of deployment-related topics.

Defense Centers of Excellence: An online resource for parents and family members covering how to help children cope with a parent’s deployment before, during, and after.

Deployment and children: Tips for parents to help a child through the deployment of a parent.

Coping with separation: Information for parents of children who are dealing with a deployment, including common reactions to deployment based on age and strategies to help children cope with a parent’s deployment.

Deployment: Your children and separation: Information for parents regarding how to help a child through the separation caused by a parent’s deployment, including signs of distress and positive aspects of the separation.

This article was written by Rayna Charles, One Tough Job Website Manager, mother of a seven year old daughter, and wife of an Army National Guard soldier who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan.

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