Ask any military family nowadays and they’ll tell you that deployments are a normal part of life. Gone are the days of a year or two (or more) between a six month deployment. Today’s reality is a deployment that can last as long as two years, with maybe a six month to one year break in between, just to rinse and repeat. Add children to that mix and it becomes a big source of stress for most people. So, how do you help your children cope with their parent being gone?
One of the most important things to do is to help your child appreciate that this is part of their parent’s job, and that it has nothing to do with them as a child. They’ve done nothing wrong and there’s nothing they can change about themselves that will make that parent stay. Children are notorious for internalizing their parent leaving: they feel it’s somehow their fault. Sit down with them and talk about where their parent is going, what they’ll be doing (in age-appropriate terms of course) and what they’ll be seeing (camels, lots of ocean, ancient temples, etc.).
You can help your child set up some “traditions” and keepsakes with the deploying parent. Help them make a calendar (either out of construction paper, online using a photo-gift website or in a word processor) spanning the time the parent will be away. It might be helpful to extend the calendar out a bit in case the parent doesn’t come home right when they’re “supposed” to. Help them put in all the special dates: birthdays, anniversaries, school plays, soccer games, first day of a new season, beginning and ending school dates, etc. When you do this, don’t focus on the fact that the parent will be missing these dates, focus on the fact that this is something they can put up in their office or work space and be thinking of their son or daughter right when these things are happening. Let them decorate it with photographs or pictures they’ve drawn. Help them pick out a special item they want to “trade” with their parent; they can trade Daddy’s special baseball cap for a special stuffed animal, a music box, etc. Have the deploying parent pick out and sign cards for birthdays and other special events that will be happening while they’re away. They can even record video messages before they leave.
Keep in mind when the deployed parent leaves is that it is most helpful for children to stay on a regular schedule. Now, there can be modifications to this schedule. My daughter and I liked sitting in front of the TV and watching “SpongeBob” while we ate dinner every night. But, there was always the same framework to our day that existed before my husband left. Look for local things to do with your children that add fun to the week: farmer’s markets, Christmas light shows, parks, plays, outdoor theatres, pumpkin patches, swimming pools, festivals, parades, etc. You don’t have to spend a lot of money (if any at all) to have a good time.
It’s important for children to realize that while it is sad that mommy or daddy is leaving, it’s not the end of the world. Life goes on as normal, they grow and change, and they’ll have tons to tell their parent about. This will enable them to acknowledge the fact that while they are sad and miss their parent (and this is ok) they can still have a fun and rewarding life that they can add their parent into once they get back.