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Coping with Military Deployment

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Dear Elizabeth,
What can I do to make my husband’s departure for his third tour of duty easier on our kids this time around?
Amanda Lynn LaRue
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
Host
  • Maintain consistent routines
  • Stay connected
  • Offer love & support
  • Seek out support services
Expert Advice
Barbara Schochet
Barbara Schochet
Clinical Psychologist
Repeated deployments are tough on families. Make it a goal to take care of yourself as well as your kids. If you feel supported and loved, then it will be easier to pass on those feelings to your kids. In terms of support, there are psychological supports, and there are practical supports.

Psychological supports might mean everything from being near family and friends (sometimes, working to make friends), to getting involved in community institutions like churches and synagogues, to seeking a support group for moms/dads with deployed spouses.

Practical supports include accepting help from others (even a neighbor bringing in a casserole for dinner once a week helps), and trying to plan so that bills are paid, etc.

Preparing Kids
I would recommend that spouses try to be nice to each other, especially in front of the children. This is not always so easy, when they are feeling tense.

Simple explanations are the best for young children, such as, “Daddy has to go work in Iraq again. We are going to miss him, but we can write him letters, and send him pictures. Daddy will write or call us sometimes, too.” Kids may not understand how “mail” works – so parents might want to get a book from the library on how the U.S. post office works.

I would also videotape Daddy or Mommy doing special things – read books, sing a bedtime song, even sing holiday songs. You can never have too much footage like this!

Kids may need to be reassured about what will happen when Daddy or Mommy is away. So tell them, “I will take you to school instead of Daddy.” Or Grandma is going to come visit us for awhile.

Typical Reactions
Let’s talk about the pre-departure period and the few weeks of the deployment first.

Kids often act clingier. They are worried that if one parent is going away, will the other one go, too? They pick up the anxiety in the air, and they are too young to be able to articulate that, but they show us how they are feeling. They may not want to go to sleep at night (because sleep is a ‘separation’). They may not want to go to their babysitter’s house, or school. They feel that things are out of control, and they may feel scared and powerless.

Saying Goodbye
Some children do not want to say goodbye. They may not want to go to the airport or deploying area. There is little to be gained by forcing the child to go, unless there is no other option. Some children may also express anger or even act “nonchalant” at a parent’s departure.

Children should not be punished or shamed for having difficulty saying goodbye. I would say something like, “I know you love Daddy and it hurts too much to say goodbye.” Or, “You can write to Mommy later on” or “You are angry at Mommy for leaving.” But I would keep those comments as neutral as possible.

Adults Need to Cope
It is important for adults to learn to cope as well as helping their kids to cope. A positive attitude is good. Keeping busy is good. Don’t feel guilty if you have a good time. The kids will pick that up, and they will know that they do not have to hold back on joy just because their parent is away.

Some parents find it useful to set goals to accomplish while the other parent is gone. You will change and grow while your loved one is away. You will find strengths you did not know you had. Do not expect yourself to be either the perfect parent or the perfect military spouse. It will make you miserable!

Adults also need to know when they are in trouble. They need to seek professional help is they get really depressed, “lose it” with the kids, or are using alcohol or drugs just to get through the day.

How Adults Can Manager Their Anxiety
There are things adults can do to manage their own fears and anxiety about their spouse’s deployment. Most military spouses suggest doing things such as:
  • exercise (to “burn off” some of that anxiety and get your endorphins flowing.)
  • talk to at least one other adult face-to-face every day. involve yourself in the Family Resource Group if you are near a base.
  • be sure to make at least one friend who also has a deployed loved one – those not in the military may not understand.
  • try to remember other times that were tough, but that you got through.
  • information is important for most people; know whom to contact in the military if you do not hear from your loved one for a much longer than usual period of time.
Child Care Provider Comments
Jennifer Botto
Jennifer Botto
Mother of two
My husband is in the army and was deployed to Afghanistan 3 months ago. My two-year-old son doesn’t really understand it. My daughter, who’s 4 and a half, is extremely close to her dad. I told both kids that their Daddy is going to help people and that Daddy is brave.

Since the day he was deployed, we made a chain with the number of links on it to represent how many days he will be gone. We remove a link each day. The chain will shorten as we get closer to his return date. Also, Grandma made a map of the world and added pictures of the family and where they all live. This is helping the kids to see where they all are in relation to where their dad is.
Marianella Hickery
Marianella Hickery
Child care provider for 20 years
I had a boy and girl in my care whose father was in the Air Force and was being deployed to another state for about 4 months. Since the boy was older he was aware of everything going on, whereas his sister didn’t really know what was happening. He took it pretty hard and stopped eating. He wasn’t getting along with the other kids and seemed withdrawn. We used circle time to help him and it took him a while to open up. We sang songs and read books about expressing feelings. We also had him draw pictures. We asked if he wanted us to send them to his dad. He also wrote a letter to his dad. His biggest fear was that his dad would die and never come back. It took two weeks of working closely with him for him to feel better and get through the severe fear.
Monica Gonzalez
Monica Gonzalez
Niece's mother was deployed
My niece seems to be doing well. Her mom left about a month ago and this is the first time she’s been deployed. Her mom was able to spend 2 days with her before she left, and she explained to her where she is going and why. Her mom gave her a DVD that deals with a character’s dad being deployed, so she watches it often. It really helps that she can talk on the phone to her mom. We keep her busy. We take her to the park to ride the ponies and she plays with all of the other kids. I’m not sure it’s really hit her that her mommy is gone. She just says tells everyone that her mommy is at work.

Staying Connected to Loved Ones Featured Activity:
Staying Connected to Loved Ones
Coping with Military Deployment Featured Video:
Coping with Military Deployment
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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