Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How To Help Children When Mom or Dad Are Deployed

Q. I have two children that I will be the primary caretaker of during my husband’s deployment in the military.  What should I do to help prepare them for when he leaves and while he is gone?
A. Tommy Smith, counselor in Andalusia, Frisco City and Brewton, will be answering your question today.  Tommy was deployed in Saudi Arabia and Iraq with the Army Reserve in 1989-90 for Desert Storm.  He is a retired Army Chaplain.  Tommy has been with Pathways for almost 10 years.  You can email Tommy at tsmith@abchome.org

"I remember when I was deployed, my commander on the very first day said to me, 'Chaplain I want you to start today thinking about the day our unit comes home.' He was saying, he wanted me to begin at the outset to prepare myself and our fellow soldiers for a good homecoming. A good beginning will set the stage for a good ending. This is also very true for children who are about to see dad or mom leave on a deployment.

Children’s reactions to separation from a parent because of military service will vary with their personalities and ages. Children are often fearful and confused about what is happening. They sense the fear of a parent. The stay at home parent worries about how she will manage responsibilities and how the deployment will affect the children. You want to prepare your children  for success not failure during this time of uncertainty for them, for you and your husband!

Here are some tips designed to help parents and children. Talk to your child about what is going to happen. Families stay connected by showing love, and by building trust and cooperation within the family. Talk about the many ways you will be able to keep in touch with each other.  This involves both parents. Of course there are now many ways to "stay in touch" with Dad once he is deployed. But before the actual separation takes place, it is important that both parents be involved in communicating to the child what is happening and seek to do some predicting for the child, so that the child will have proper expectations.

We do not fear the past, only the future, so you want to eliminate as much of the unknown for your child as possible by encouraging your child to talk about his or her feelings and fears. Keep your routines and home life as normal as possible, this helps the child feel secure. Assure your child that you are confident in this new adventure. Seeing mom and dad confident that everything is alright will help the child with the assurance he needs.

Make sure you are completely honest with your child about what is taking place, explaining in age appropriate ways. That means you need to know as much as possible yourself about what is happening. Meeting other military families that are experiencing separation is also helpful. Having someone who understands and encourages you while you are alone is a blessing, don't do this alone. We all need a support group. Both of you could go together and seek the prayerful support of your local pastor and church fellowship.  

I have listed some great resources below that you can connect to. You need to take seriously all of the help being offered from your husband's military unit, the briefings for family, etc. Prior to the deployment date the unit is busy preparing to leave and time together may be difficult to schedule. Even though this will be a very busy time, the two of you need to spend time together building up the closeness and the understanding that prepares you for the separation.

So, what is it that the child needs most from dad and mom at this time? 
  • Assurance that although apart for awhile the family will remain  strong and will be together again as soon as this deployment is over.   Remember that the children tend to do as well as the parents do in handling emotional struggles. If you are doing well emotionally, the children will feel safe and loved. 
  • Keeping things in order and having routine and structure will help greatly. 
  • Parents often are not aware of how much things like the lack of sleep affect children. Children who do not get proper sleep are more anxious, have more difficulty paying attention and can become more irritable or aggressive. 
  • Also respect the fact that you must also take care of yourself since you are the primary caregiver. 
  • Remember that when children have proper boundaries and structure, and their lives are somewhat predictable, children feel safe and loved! 
  • The greatest need of the child is to know that he is loved unconditionally by mom and dad. This love is communicated not only through words but through spending time with the child and especially affectionate touch. When your child is lacking these things or when he or she is feeling disconnected, he will likely withdraw or act-out. 
  • If the child has difficulty adjusting to the changes, her grades may fall off or he may start acting out in ways you haven't seen. If you see your child needing help don't wait, get help.

It is always good to share with the child's teacher that dad is deploying. Many teachers are doing a great job helping at school by helping the whole class understand the sacrifice of men and women who are serving our armed forces. When teachers have given this type of great support, the child seems to do better adjusting to the absent parent serving in the military.

Don't forget prayer! Regular prayer together helps each member of the family, especially when they are able to talk with God about concerns and fears. Seek the peace that only the Lord Himself can provide. Make this a spiritual journey with confidence that your Heavenly Father loves and cares for each one of his children."

Other Resources: 
Video for Teenagers

*This column is not intended to substitute for an actual session with a licensed counselor.

If you have a question you would like to ask, EMAIL US: askanne@abchome.org or leave a comment. We would love to answer one of your questions.

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