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Helping Children Cope During Deployment

little girl playing a game

Photo by Pvt. Daniel Boothen

Deployments can be challenging for the entire military family. Even with the best preparation children may experience stress when one or both parents deploy. The at-home parent or caregiver may also experience stress as they adjust to new family roles and responsibilities. Although deployment may be challenging, military families often make adjustments that lead to new sources of strength and support.

This article focuses on tools and resources that can help military families decrease stress and strengthen family resilience during a deployment.

Recognizing Signs of Stress in Children

Deployment is a time of change and adjustment for children. It is normal for children to behave and react differently to protect their feelings, to gain reassurance that they are still loved and to assure themselves that the at-home parent or caregiver won't leave them. Although children will have different reactions to separation, it is important to recognize some common signs of stress by age group. In the table below, afterdeployment provides some helpful guidelines for behaviors and moods children may experience during a deployment.1

Signs of Stress in Children

 

Ages

Behaviors

Moods

Infants

< 1 yr

Won't eat, more

Fussy

Less energy or

interest in things

Toddlers

1-3 yrs

Tantrums, cries,

acting out

Grumpy, angry, sad

Preschool

3-6 yrs

Potty accidents,

clingy, won't sleep

Sad, moody,

Frustrated

School Age

6-12 yrs

Whines, "acts out"

for attention

Grumpy, moody, sad

Teenagers

12-18 yrs

Isolates, turns to

peers, takes risks

Anger, depression or

gives the sense that

they don't care

To learn more about different emotions and behaviors children may experience during deployment, as well as age-appropriate ways to communicate to children during deployment, read:

Helping Children Adjust

During deployment, family roles may change, new routines are established and new sources of support, such as relatives, friends, playgroups and community gatherings are found. The following tips can help children adjust to these transitions:1, 2, 3, 4, 5

  • Provide unconditional love. Children of all ages may feel less safe or secure because of a change in family structure during deployment. Listen patiently to their concerns and let them know it is okay to be sad, frustrated or angry. Make sure children know they are loved by providing consistent, constant reassurance.
  • Communicate. Children need to feel comfortable that they can ask questions and discuss their thoughts and feelings. Talk to children openly and honestly to help them work through their emotions and reactions. Base what you say about the deployed parent on the child's age and level of understanding.6
  • Connect. Keep in touch as much as possible with the deployed parent with letters, photos, emails and phone calls. Consider setting up a communication schedule, which allows family members to anticipate and look forward to a phone call or email. Also consider using interactive sites such as:
  • Stick to routines. It is important not to put family life "on hold" until the deployed parent comes home. Children take comfort in routines and will feel more secure if bedtimes, mealtimes and other important rituals remain unchanged. Continuing family traditions such as pizza nights and weekend family activities can provide a fun and relaxing outlet for everyone.
  • Maintain discipline and firm limits at home. Children will test the at-home parent or caregiver's rules and routines. Make sure your children know that household rules, such as chores and homework, will not change during deployment. Always follow through with a clear and consistent set of consequences and rewards to keep everyone on track.4
  • Stay involved in your child's education. Let teachers and educators know that one or both parents have been deployed, and that your children may be facing extra stress. Schedule regular check-in meetings with teachers to check on progress and learn about behavior changes at school or if they recognize any signs of stress. For more resources, read the article, Working with your Child's Educators During Deployment.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Increase your children's physical well-being by:
    • Eating healthy, well-balanced meals together as a family. For nutrition tips and resources, read the article, Nutrition's Role in Building Resilience.
    • Keeping children active in sports, clubs and hobbies. For more information about the importance of physical activity, read the article, Physical Fitness Training Year-Round Boosts Resilience.
    • Limiting TV and computer time. Monitor media exposure and base the amount of war-related news your child watches on their age and maturity level.

Taking Care of Yourself

During deployment, the at-home parent or caregiver may feel overwhelmed with added childcare and household responsibilities and may cut out personal time. However, it is important to recognize that taking care of yourself during times of stress is just as important as caring for your children.7 Consider getting involved with your installation's Family Readiness Group to meet other families in the same situation and find ways to help each other. Find contact information for your installation through MilitaryINSTALLATIONS.

Reach out for Help

Don't hesitate to reach out for help if you find it hard to support your child's emotional needs at any time. You can get support and information by contacting:

Recognizing common emotions and behaviors that children can experience during a deployment along with learning about ways to help children adjust and manage their emotions can strengthen a family while one or both parents are away. Although challenging, deployment can also be an opportunity to reinforce strong family bonds and increase the resilience of the entire family.

Additional Resources

Sources

1 "Families with Kids" [PDF 6.16 MB], afterdeployment. Last accessed March 6, 2014.

2 "Single Parenting While Your Spouse is Deployed," Military OneSource. Last accessed March 6, 2014.

3 "Helping Your Preschooler Deal with Your Deployment," Military OneSource. Last accessed March 6, 2014.

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

5 "Teenagers and Deployment," Military OneSource. Last accessed March 6, 2014.

6 "The 'So Far' Guide for Helping Children and Youth Cope with the Deployment of a Parent in the Military Reserves," [PDF 317.22] SOFAR. Last accessed March 6, 2014.

7 "Serving as the Designated Family Caregiver for a Deployed Service Member," Military OneSource. Last accessed March 6, 2014.

Last Reviewed: 03/06/14
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