Transitioning through a Reunion
After returning from deployment, service members experience a period of readjustment to life back home. As service members reintegrate, their families go through a transition. During this adjustment period, it is common for family members to have feelings of excitement, nervousness, anxiety and concern.
Depending on the length of the separation, family changes may have occurred during deployment. Family roles have adapted, children have grown and developed, likes and dislikes have changed and new friends and relationships may have been established during the deployment. To successfully manage the transition back to home life, it is important that the service member and their family is patient, communicates, keeps expectations realistic and take time to get to know one another.1
Helping Children Reconnect
Reunions are an exciting time, but they can be confusing for children of all ages. They may be happy, worried, scared and excited. Rebuilding trust and closeness takes time. Children desire a close relationship with their returning family member, but they may be unsure of what to do or how to react.2 The returning parent should slowly reestablish family connections, allowing relationships to restore naturally, without force.3
For more information on accessing professional assistance in your area refer to the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) article “Locating Health Care in Your State.”
The homecoming of the service member is a major change for the children in the household. They have grown physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually during the deployment. Children are not as skilled at coping with their stress in part because they have less experience doing so. As a result, they may temporarily act out or regress to a less mature stage of behavior as a part of their reaction. Usually, it takes families six months to a year to fully reintegrate after a deployment. All families should have realistic expectations and keep the lines of communication open after deployment.3
Children will respond to your reunion differently depending on their emotional development:3
- Children between the ages of 3 and 5 may act out more than normal. They may be demanding or whiney, or have feelings of guilt thinking they “made Mom or Dad go away."
- Children between the ages of 5 and 12 may respond in a variety of ways including boasting about the returning service member to others, talking nonstop about what has been happening in their lives, or they may be angry about the time apart.
- Youth between the ages of 12 and 18 may hide their excitement about the service member's return, worry about a change in rules or be concerned that they were not "good enough" during the time apart.
The way the returning service member reacts and responds to these various reactions is an important part of a successful reunion. The following techniques will help you respond to the various reactions of children through the development cycle:
Younger Children (Ages 1 to 5)
- Give them time to warm up
- Sit or kneel at their level
- Listen to what they tell you
- Find out their new interests
- Play together when the time is right
- Force hugs or playtime
- Rush them into trusting you
School Aged Children (Ages 5 to 12)
- Allow them to brag about you
- Spend time reviewing school work, pictures, scrapbooks, etc.
- Praise them for their accomplishments during your deployment
- Criticize past negative behaviors
Teenagers (12 to 18)
- Listen with undivided attention
- Have respect for their privacy and friends
- Encourage them to share what has happened during deployment
- Force them into spending time with you
- Encourage their disinterested and disrespectful behavior
- Criticize new interests or friends
Programs and Initiatives Focused on Reunions after Deployment
Various organizations have developed programs and initiatives specifically focused on helping families successfully manage the reunion process after deployment. These activities are especially helpful in starting conversations about the challenges of deployment and reunions. Programs are available to assist families with children of all ages from toddlers to teenagers. Below is a list of programs and initiatives that can be useful to military families:
Talk, Listen and Connect: Helping Families Cope with Military Deployment features the Sesame Street character Elmo dealing with the prolonged absence of his father. It is suitable for ages 3 to 5, and is available from Sesame Street Workshop.
Mr. Poe and Friends Discuss Family Reunion after Deployment uses cartoon characters to address deployment issues affecting children ages 6 to 11. For more information about this resource and many others, visit the Military Youth Deployment Support website and the Army Behavioral Health website.
Military Youth Coping With Military Deployment is a tool parents can use to help teenagers learn about and cope with military deployment.. Offered by Military HomeFront, the program provides parents with teen guides, videos and educational fact sheets focused on signs and symptoms of depression and the deployment cycle.
Special Family Circumstances: Returning Home to a New Baby
Returning home to a new addition to the family can be especially delicate. If you were away for the birth or the first year of your baby’s life, you’ll be coming home to a whole new family. Some unique challenges may include:3
- Feelings of jealousy may exist because of the attention given to the infant or there may be feelings of guilt for being away during the pregnancy and birth. Accept two facts: the separation was inevitable, and the infant’s needs demand attention. Take an active role in caring for the child as soon as possible.
- Baby’s needs come first, and they’re expensive. Be prepared for a much tighter budget.
- Your older children may feel lost with all the changes and need help coping. Make sure to spend quality time with them to help ease the transition.
In addition to the joy and stress parents feel when returning to children after a long absence, single parents may feel particularly anxious about the bond formed by the child and the temporary caregiver. To make this transition easier:3
- Communicate openly and frequently with both the caregiver and the child.
- Involve the caregiver in the transition. Forcing the child to suddenly separate can be just as traumatic as when you left.
- Ask how things were done while you were gone. It will help you plan how to ease your child back into your rules and schedules.
- Ask your child about his or her feelings regarding your “new” relationship and how life at home should be. The changes in caregivers and living arrangements may make children feel as though they have no control over their lives. Assure them that you will be a family again.9
Communicating with children is an important part of the reunion process. Here are some suggestions to try when communicating with your family about deployment and reunions:4
- Take personal time with each child
- Keep in mind the child's age and communication abilities
- Start with a clean slate; past wrongs do not count
- Praise the child for what he or she has accomplished during the time apart
- Acknowledge the child's feelings; allow the child to talk about feelings
- Do not criticize
- Talk! Talk! Talk! Listen!
The time following deployment is an important stage for military families. Patience, communication, discipline and involvement are critical to successfully reconnecting as a family.5 With a little preparation and education, homecoming can be a memorable experience and an opportunity to improve your relationships with your loved ones.
1"U.S. Army Deployment Cycle Readiness: Soldier's and Family Member's Handbook," [PDF 3.78MB] U.S. Army. Published March 8, 2008.
2"Reintegration: Children and Reunion," Armed Forces Crossroads. Last accessed March 19, 2013.
3"Families With Kids," [PDF 6.17MB] afterdeployment.org. Last accessed March 19, 2013.
4"Airmen, Civilians and Family Members Reintegration Guide," [PDF 1.64MB] U.S. Air Force. Last accessed March 19, 2013.
5"Readiness and Deployment Support Training," [PDF 411.33KB] U.S. Marine Corps. Last accessed March 19, 2013.