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Coping with Separation

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Shawn P. Coover/Released

Source: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Shawn P. Coover/Released

Preparing for a service member’s upcoming deployment can be difficult for all members of the military family, including children. Deployment or mobilization can be particularly challenging for children of National Guardsmen and reservists because they may not have the same community support system and resources that are available to active-duty families that live near or on a military installation. Families of National Guard and reserve service members may feel isolated because they are often living in civilian communities where their friends and neighbors may not understand the changes that come with deployment.

Children’s reactions to separation from a deployed parent depends on a variety of factors including the child’s age and level of maturity. This article discusses ways that members of the National Guard and reserve and their families can help children cope with separation before and during deployment.

Military Families Near and Far

In the months and weeks leading up to deployment, the deploying service member and non-deploying parent or caregiver may experience a range of emotions including anxiety, fear, pride, excitement and disbelief.1 Many children can sense a change in their parent’s behavior and can develop their own emotional strain as a result.2 While all children will react to a parent’s deployment differently, some common reactions for different age-groups include:

Common Reactions to Deployment2
Preschool Children
2 – 4 years old
Elementary Children
5 – 10 years old
11 – 17 years old
Clinginess and increased demands for attentionNew behavior problems (or intensification of already existing problems)Misdirected anger (e.g., acting-out behaviors, intentionally hurting or cutting themselves)
Trouble separating from parentRegressive behaviors (i.e., acting as if at an earlier stage of development)Problems at school
IrritabilityRapid mood swingsAppearance of apathy (e.g., loss of interest, non-communication)
Aggression and angry outburstsChanges in eating and sleepingSignificant weight change
Attention-getting behavior (e.g., outbursts, tantrums or teasing)Anger at both parents (for disrupting their normal way of life and sense of security)Possible drug or alcohol use
Return to younger behaviors (e.g., more thumb sucking) Regressive behavior (i.e., acting as if at an earlier stage of development)
Sleep disturbances Increased importance of friends
Acting out scary or disturbing events during playtime activities Assuming responsibilities appropriate for an adult, not an adolescent

Recognizing that the above reactions are common can help you identify a change in your child’s behavior throughout the deployment cycle. If a noticeable change in your child’s behavior continues or worsens, seek professional help from a doctor, counselor or school administrator. There are also a number of steps you can take as a family to help prepare your child to cope with separation both before and during deployment.

Before Deployment

Before an upcoming deployment, it is important to include your child in family activities to help them feel like they are part of the decision making process. The level of involvement varies depending on the age of the child. Some activities to consider include:

  • Talk as a family. It is important to let your child know they can share their thoughts and concerns with you. Create an environment of open communication by listening to your child’s concerns and responding with information that is easy to understand and age appropriate.
  • Make a plan. Work together to develop a plan to stay connected during deployment. Set expectations for how your family can communicate and develop ways for your child to share important information, such as report cards and major life events, with the deployed parent.
  • Set aside family time. Schedule quality time together as a family and individually with each child before deployment. Create a list of activities that you and your child can do together to help them cope while the deployed parent is gone including:
    • Record a favorite book so that your child can hear the deployed parent’s voice.
    • Make a calendar with important dates such as the child’s birthday, holidays and the homecoming day.
    • Create a picture collage of your child and the deploying parent.

During Deployment

During the deployment phase, there are additional steps that both the deployed and non-deployed parent or caregiver can take to create an open and supportive environment to help minimize the stress your child may be experiencing.

The non-deployed parent or caregiver is encouraged to:

  • Continue talking. It is important to maintain open lines of communication during deployment. Be ready to talk when your child has questions and talk about the deployed parent to help your child feel connected. As children open up, be prepared for a range of feelings and reactions.
  • Keep a routine. Family routines and traditions are an important and stabilizing factor for children.3 It is important to continue family traditions while the deployed parent is away to maintain a sense of stability and continuity.
  • Create a strong network. Involve extended family and friends to create a support system for your child. You can also reach out to the military community such as the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program or identify local resources in your area.
  • Work with your child’s educators. Meet with your child’s teacher or administrator to explain that a parent has deployed and stay in touch to monitor any changes in your child’s behavior or performance at school.
  • Take care of yourself. If you are calm, you will be better prepared to support your child’s needs throughout the deployment. Be sure to take time for yourself to exercise, spend time with friends or take a nap.
  • Celebrate important dates. Coordinate with the deployed parent to have a card or present for birthdays, holidays or other important events in your child’s life that will take place during deployment. When possible, try to include the deployed parent in the celebration by scheduling a phone call or sending a video recording of the festivities.

The deployed parent is encouraged to:

  • Stay in touch. As much as possible, try to touch base regularly with your loved ones at home. Set expectations about how often and when you will be able to write or talk on the phone.
  • Avoid stressful topics. When communicating with your family, try to avoid topics that may create stress or uncertainty for your child. Instead focus on topics that they can understand and share positive stories such as working with other children or rebuilding communities.
  • Send home mementos. Consider mailing pictures, letters, videos or small gifts, if possible, to let your child know you are thinking about them. Try to give your family an idea of your living environment, which can help children better understand your deployment.

Every child is unique and will react to a parent’s deployment differently, but with planning and open communication you can help your child cope with separation and feel connected with their parent during deployment.

Additional Resources


1Families with Kids [PDF 6.17MB],” afterdeployment. Last accessed March 11, 2014.
2The 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.
3Helping Children Cope During Deployment,” [PDF 425KB] Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Last accessed March 28, 2014.

Last Reviewed: 03/11/14
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