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Preparing Children for Deployment

Deployment can be emotionally challenging for the entire military family and it can be especially confusing and stressful for children. Parents can also experience stress, as they wonder how the transition will affect their children and parenting responsibilities. This article focuses on pre-deployment tips that can help prepare military families for the absence of one or both parents. The tips and resources below are designed to boost family resilience and readiness by building trust and cooperation within a family before one or both parents deploy.

Planning for Deployment with Your Spouse

Before including your children in the discussion, it is important to make time for just you and your spouse. Planning ahead for the day of departure will give you and your spouse a clearer focus on how to help your children cope with deployment. The following tips can help you and your spouse plan ahead: 1, 2

  • Schedule specific times to talk that are free of distractions. Service members can be busy with many preparatory activities before a deployment. It is important to schedule time with your spouse to start planning as far ahead as possible.
  • Communicate:
    • Identify topics of conversation. Create a simple, numbered list of discussion areas that outline your children's needs when a parent is deployed. Discuss one major topic at a time to avoid becoming overwhelmed and take notes as you and your spouse work out the details. Keep track of follow-up steps that may arise by making a list.
    • Don't let disagreement stop communication. If you and your spouse disagree on an issue, take a short break. If necessary, seek advice from a third party or a couple who have experienced similar situations.
  • Discuss when to include your children in the planning process. Keep in mind your child's age and maturity level when determining how involved they will be in the planning process. Practice answering questions they might have.
  • Attend a pre-deployment meeting together. Take advantage of surrounding support as it can help decrease stress and increase the likelihood of a smoother transition. Check with your military installation for dates and times. If you are a member of the National Guard and Reserve, the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program offers pre-deployment events geared especially toward military families.
  • Create a family care plan. By having a blueprint in place that designates back-up caregivers and outlines responsibilities, you can help position your family for emotional, physical and financial well-being during your absence.3 Be sure to keep your plan up-to-date as family changes and transitions occur. Learn more about how to create a family care plan.

Communicating with Children about Deployment

Children respond differently to deployment depending on their age and maturity level. It is important to communicate an upcoming deployment to children in ways that are developmentally appropriate. Here are some simple explanations of what children can grasp at certain ages: 1

  • Infants to 2-year-olds can sense increased stress in their homes. Parents and other caregivers can assist infants and toddlers by offering reassurance and remaining in control of their own emotions.4
  • 3- to 4-year-olds have no concept of time. For example, a 3-year-old may think that three months is next week. However, they can understand important markers, so parents can say, "dad or mom will be home right before your birthday."
  • 5- to 6-year-olds have a better understanding of time. Parents can mark the calendar and say, "this is the day that dad or mom is supposed to come home."
  • 7- to 8-year-olds understand time and bigger concepts such as "bad" and "good." They will be able to look at calendar and mark it. You can say dad or mom is going away to "help the good guys."
  • 9- to 12-year-olds have some abstract thinking skills. They are aware of the news and can understand concepts like the "national good." You can mention a return date, and they will understand the time frame. Reinforce this age group's skills by providing them with pre-stamped envelopes, as well as private email accounts for communicating.
  • 12- to 18-year-olds are experiencing many physical, emotional and social changes during this time of their life. They may withdraw from you or try to assert their independence. Establish open lines of communication and encourage your teen to share their feelings. This will put you or your spouse in a better position to comfort him or her. To learn more about teens and deployment, read the Real Warriors Campaign article, Teens & Deployment: What to Expect and How to Help.

When you begin to discuss an upcoming deployment with your family, focus on your children's emotional needs. Start the discussion slowly – you'll want to prepare your children for the day of departure, but do not want to overwhelm them. Follow the tips below to help prepare your children for an upcoming deployment: 1,2,5

  • Designate family meeting times. It is important to include children in the planning process. Not only do you prepare them for the deployment, but also you give them a say in family decisions at a time when they may feel they have little control over a large part of their lives.
  • Establish open lines of communication. Encourage your children to talk about their feelings, even negative ones. Allow your children to ask questions, and try to answer as honestly as you can. Some suggested topics to discuss include: 6,7
    • The deploying parent's job. If possible, share the location of where the parent will go and the positive attributes of the type of work they will be doing (e.g., helping children, fighting for the freedom of others, etc.).
    • Ways to stay in touch. Make sure your children know the ways in which you will communicate and stay in touch.
    • New roles and responsibilities older children can take on while you are away. Assuming new roles can be an effective way to channel anxieties into helpful behavior. Establish specific jobs or tasks older children can take over, such as household chores, and let them know how their responsibility will contribute to helping the family when you are away.
    • Who will take on new roles while you are away. Managing your children's expectations about who will be in charge while you're gone can make the transition smoother.
  • Spend quality time together. Spending quality time as a family before your deployment will provide your children with some recent, positive experiences to remember while you are away. As a family, brainstorm a list of fun activities to do before departure day, such as:
    • Family outings, such as going to a sports event or the zoo.
    • Making a calendar with important dates such as the child's birthday, holidays and the homecoming day.
    • Creating a picture collage of your family.
    • Shopping together for fun items to keep in touch with, such as stationery, cards or a webcam.
  • Exchange sentimental items. For older children, this could include a pillow, T-shirt or baseball cap.6,7 For younger children, you can record yourself reading their favorite bedtime story or singing their favorite song.8 These items can be extremely powerful while you are deployed.
  • Share support resources with your children.

Preparing for an upcoming deployment provides an opportunity for military families to grow closer and stronger. As you plan ahead with your children, take advantage of the opportunity to connect and bond with your family. By building trust and cooperation within a family before one or both parents deploy, you are increasing your family's resilience and readiness.

Additional Resources

Sources

1 "Helping Children Cope During Deployment," [PDF 424.28 KB] Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Last accessed March 5, 2014.

2 "The SOFAR Guide for Helping Children and Youth Cope with the Deployment and Return of a Parent in the National Guard and Other Reserve Components," [PDF 7.93MB] Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists. Published 2008.

3 "Completing a Family Care Plan," Military OneSource. Last accessed March 5, 2014.

4"Helping Your Child Prepare for a Parent's Deployment" [PDF 324.43KB], Zero to Three. Last accessed March 5, 2014.

5 "Families With Kids," [PDF 6.17MB], afterdeployment. Last accessed March 5, 2014.

6 "Helping Your School-Aged Children Deal with Your Deployment," MilitaryOneSource. Last accessed March 5, 2014.

7 "Teenagers and Deployment," Military OneSource. Last accessed March 5, 2014.

8 "Helping Your Preschooler Deal with Your Deployment," Military OneSource. Last accessed March 5, 2014.

Last Reviewed: 03/05/14
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