Children want and need their parents to protect and reassure them that their mom or dad will always be by their side, said Maia Noeder, Ph.D. of KidsHealth, the most trusted source for physician-reviewed information and advice on parenting and children’s health. But what if parents need to leave for military service for an extended period?
Deployment will disrupt kids’ sense of structure and balance. Although military families are proud of serving their country’s armed forces, they are worried about how their children will manage in their absence. How children will manage their parents’ absence will vary, and parents need to be prepared for their kids’ reactions.
The Lifestyle of Military Families (2018)
Blue Star Families, a national non-profit organization, surveyed more than 10,000 participants involving active duty service members, veterans, and their immediate family members from April to June 2018. The top issues cited by the respondents were time away from family (51% of active duty spouses, 52% of active duty members, and 34% of veterans), military spouse employment (45%, 28%, and 19%), military child education (42%, 34%, and 22%), impact of deployment on children (39%, 35%, 28%), and military pay and benefits (35%, 33%, and 37%).
Millennial military family respondents (70%) were more likely than older family respondents (63%) to have two incomes as vital to their family’s well-being regardless of their rank. Likewise, military families were more likely than civilian families to report higher rates of difficulty in making ends meet (13% versus 7%). During their last military move, 31% of military family respondents spent more than $1,000 in reimbursed expenses. For 79% of female service with kids who relocated in the last year, they could not obtain childcare, suggesting that relocation could be challenging for the said group.
Among military family respondents who had experienced a deployment or other military-related service member separation of over three months in the last 15 months, 72% said their child had lived at home at this time. For 24% of military family respondents, they said their child experienced personal growth or resilience. 11% said their child had increased pride or confidence and 14% reported that prolonged service member absence did not have an effect.
However, the difficulties faced by most respondents were separation anxiety or sleeping problems (57%), behavioral problems (53%), reintegration challenges upon the service member’s return (30%), decreased academic performance (18%), and depression (16%).
32% of service members respondents said obtaining timely appointments as their top solution to enhance their health care satisfaction. For veterans and service member respondents, they would like to improve appointment availability to make seeking mental health care more comfortable. Fully covered alternative care options were mentioned as a top improvement among military spouses (32%), veterans (25%), and veteran spouses (37%). Among 32% of LGBT military family respondents, they cited improving health care as the most important change in their quality of life.
Talking to Kids Prior to Deployment
“Toddlers don't understand the concept of time. They just know that Dad or Mom is away,” explained Elaine G. Dumler, author of “I'm Already Home...Again.” Reassure your child that you will always love them and tell them that they will be in the loving arms of another family member, she added. Describe the deployment in a language easily understood by younger kids. They may not understand the word “deployment,” but your child will understand that you will be away for a certain time for work, stated Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D., a psychologist with two kids.
Luedtke, who has a husband that has been deployed four times, suggested talking about where you are going in general terms or pointing the location of your deployment. It might be tempting to say “everything’s going to be alright,” but it is better to be positive and reassuring. Consider saying, “Mom/dad will do her/his best to come back safe and sound and maybe in time for your birthday or a holiday,” Luedtke suggested. Be honest with your feelings— communicate that you feel sad, worried, disappointed about the deployment to your child.
This way, your child will know that their feelings are valid, prompting them to discuss their feelings with you. Inform your child about who will take care of them while you are away. Exercise patience when they ask the same questions again and again. Don’t give out details that may cause distress and anxiety in your child. “Deployment can be dangerous, but kids may overreact if they are focused on bombs and bullets,” Luedtke added.
Instill a sense of structure at home, which can be reassuring for children. Keep the absent parent a part of your child’s life by creating a scrapbook, looking at pictures or videos, and more. Deployment is unsettling for kids and overwhelming for a partner who has to shoulder their absent spouse’s duties. Therefore, it is recommended to participate in programs, which are launched by the armed forces, to help you get through hard times. Take advantage of these programs and don’t forget to ask help from relatives, friends, or other military families who are going through a similar experience.
You might be expecting hugs, happiness, and tears of joy. But this period can also throw off many families. Some returning service men and women easily get into the swing of things, but for others, it can be more difficult to regain that balance. Nevertheless, it is strongly recommended to communicate to re-establish a routine that works for every family member.
Give it time before everything goes back to the “old normal.” It may take a while for your family to adjust but that does not mean they love you any less or you won’t get back to where you were before the deployment. Be patient and let your family get to know and rediscover each other. Don’t be discouraged when the first few days or weeks of homecoming are not exactly what you expected. Pressuring your family or yourself to feel a certain way can be unhealthy so it is better to trust the process and let everything unfold gradually.
Deployment can be hard for children as they will not be able to see their mom or dad (and both) for weeks or months. Parents should communicate with their kids about the deployment in an age-appropriate manner. When parents return from deployment, they should not expect their family to easily revert to the “good old days.” Rather, parents should exercise patience and get to know each other to help everyone readjust.