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Transitioning Through Reunion

Army soldier with family

Photo by Defenseimagery.mil

A parent's return home after deployment is often a time of celebration. It can also be a time of stress as families adjust to being back together. During this transition period, it is common for family members to experience a range of emotions, including excitement and anxiety or concern about changing family roles. This article highlights common reactions that children may have after a parent returns home. It suggests how to respond to these behaviors and offers tools and resources that military families can use to build family resilience during the reunion phase of deployment.

Common Reactions in Children After Deployment

A service member's homecoming can be stressful for the entire family. During deployment, family roles may have changed, new routines were likely established and new sources of support were found. Children may have grown physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually.

Children will respond to a reunion differently depending on their emotional development, personality and age. Keep in mind that some reactions are a normal part of the developmental process, such as temper tantrums in toddlers and rebellious behavior in teenagers. Other and prolonged reactions may indicate adjustment issues related to the reunion. The table below outlines some common reactions children may have after deployment based on age: 1,2,3

Age

Reaction

0-12 months

  • Cries, fusses
  • Pulls away/doesn't recognize the returning parent
  • Clings to the other parent or caregiver
  • Eating and sleeping habits change
  • May have bowel/ bladder problems

1-3 years

  • Cries for no apparent reason
  • May not recognize the returning parent and prefers the other parent or caregiver
  • Is shy and hesitant with the returning parent
  • Regresses (returns to old behaviors, for example: if toilet-trained, may begin having accidents)

3-5 years

  • Demonstrates anger
  • Acts out to get attention
  • Is demanding and whiney
  • Feels guilty that they "made Mom or Dad go away"
  • Talks nonstop to the returning parent to let them know what's going on

5-12 years

  • Is angry about the returning parent being gone
  • Worries about the returning parent disciplining them
  • Acts out to seek the returning parent's attention
  • Wants to tell the returning parent everything they did while they were gone

12-18 years

  • Acts like they don't care even though they may be excited
  • Worries about change in rules
  • Concerned they have not lived up to the returning parent's standards
  • Angry

Helping Children Reconnect

It usually takes families six months to a year to fully reintegrate after a deployment.1 During this time, it is important that parents slowly and naturally reestablish family connections.3 The following table provides some ideas that can help children cope with their emotions and reestablish family connections during a reunion:1, 4

Age

Activity/Behavior

0-12 months

  • Reconnect and bond by proving physical care, such as holding and feeding your baby
  • Be patient

1-3 years

  • Give your child space and time to warm up
  • Sit and play at their level (play on the floor with them)
  • Be gentle and fun; speak with a soft voice

3-5 years

  • Listen to your child without criticism
  • Accept your child's thoughts and feelings
  • Play games with your child that he/she chooses
  • Find out about the new things in your child's life (friends, books, a TV show, a new sport, etc.)

5-12 years

  • Praise your child's accomplishments since you've been gone
  • Let your child show you his/her school work, pictures or scrapbooks
  • Be positive; try not to criticize past negative behaviors
  • Get involved in your child's education and activities

12-18 years

  • Share age-appropriate, positive deployment experiences, such as stories about the country and culture where you were stationed
  • Listen to your child's stories with undivided attention
  • Be positive; try not to criticize or be judgmental of new interests and friends
  • Respect your child's privacy
  • Get involved in your child's education and activities

Single Parents

Coming home after a deployment can be especially challenging for single parents. Single parents may feel anxious about the bond their children formed with the caregiver. The parent may also be concerned about strengthening their own bond with their children. To make this transition easier, single parents can: 1,5

  • Involve the caregiver in the transition. Communicate openly and frequently with the caregiver and your children. Your children most likely formed a strong bond with the caregiver while you were gone and keeping your children in touch with the caregiver will help ease the separation. If the caregiver lives far away, call with updates on how you and your children are doing.
  • Ask how things were done while you were gone. Learn about routines, rules and discipline methods that the caregiver established. Try to integrate this information back in your own rules and schedules to ease the transition.

Resources for Families Transitioning Through a Reunion

If at any time you would like support, don't hesitate to reach out for help. Resources include both medical and non-medical counseling as well as programs such as the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program and the Transition Assistance Program.6 Additionally, several organizations also partner with the Defense Department to provide fun and therapeutic reintegration activities for military families. Opportunities include:

To find more military family activities and resources in your area, visit Challenge America's family resources directory.

As a parent reintegrating back into family life, it is important to remember that while you were deployed your children will have grown and developed. Remember to have patience and to let the relationships rebuild naturally. It is important to maintain open communication and have realistic expectations. Keeping some of the tips and resources outlined in this article in mind can help reestablish family relationships and set your family up for a smoother transition through a reunion.

Additional Resources

Sources

1 "Families With Kids," [PDF 6.17MB] afterdeployment. Last accessed March 7, 2014.

2 "Helping Your Preschooler Deal with Your Deployment," Military OneSource. Last accessed March 7, 2014.

3 "Helping Your School-Aged Children Deal with Your Deployment," MilitaryOneSource. Last accessed March 7, 2014.

4 Tips for Helping a Child After Deployment," [PDF 324KB] Zero to Three. Last accessed March 7, 2014.

5 "Returning Home from Deployment When You're a Mom," Military OneSource. Last accessed March 7, 2014.

6 "Coming Home: Reunion and Reintegration," Military OneSource. Last accessed March 7, 2014.

Last Reviewed: 03/07/14
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