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Supporting your kids through deployment

I just wrote a blog post on how to support yourself through deployment ("Supporting yourself during deployment") and how to support the military spouses in your life through deployment ("Supporting military spouses through deployment"), so the next post in this series should naturally be about how to support your children through a deployment.

Nearing the end of our second sea tour, I can say that going through deployment with an infant and going through a deployment with a 3rd grader are vastly different, just as going through deployment with one child compared to multiple children has also been very different. So my disclaimer for this post is that this is a general guide for getting through deployment with kids. I would love to hear about how you get your children through deployment at their ages and stages! My oldest, as I write this post, is 9-years old in 3rd grade. We also have twin 6-year olds, a 3-year old, and a 1-year old.

1. Familiar routines
This has been clutch for me. My oldest is very routine oriented and gets very stressed out when things are done differently. When I can keep our routines in place-- even if I have to vary them slightly-- he feels assured that things will be okay. It also helps now that we have 5 children because when everything ends up on my plate during deployment, the children know what to expect. They know it is time to wind down at bedtime. They know it is story time after shower. They know when we have meals and when to get ready to head out the door for school. The routines help extend my parenting arm because the kids can take control of various times of day because they know the expectations on them. And the familiarity of the routines does tell them that life is moving forward, in a good way.

2. Keep the conversation going
One thing that I love about routines is that they allow us to bring their deployed parent into the conversation. We talk about their dad spontaneously as well, but during story time they will pick a book Daddy loves or Daddy reads silly. On Saturday mornings, we make pancakes, but not nearly as good as how Daddy makes them. Sometimes it hurts my heart to talk about my husband missing big things-- like birthdays or anniversaries or holidays or special trips-- but talking about the good times, the familiar routines, are much easier for me to discuss because what they are saying is true-- he does make good pancakes, he would read this book silly, he does love cuddling during movie night. These are easy ways for me to keep the conversation going about their Daddy being present and part of the family, whereas sometimes on the special days I can only think about what he's missing and how he feels missing it.

3. Do your own scrapbook
This can be really fun for kids and can be done in one hundred million different ways. I know people that do paper chains by writing on a chain each day that the deployed parent is gone. My kids don't like that because the chain gets too long and it makes them sad. One of the things that my kids loved was making calendar squares to hang on our fridge with the dates. I gave each of them a square that they decorated. At the end of the day, we put all of the squares together to show their dad when he got back. (One of the unsuccessful times was when I used calendar squares to count DOWN to when their dad would come home and that lead to a lot of tears when the date changed. Then they didn't like the calendar squares anymore.) I think one of my favorite things we did was making a scrapbook page for each day their dad was deployed. The pages were really simple. We took computer paper and just wrote the date on each page, something we did, and occasionally included a picture or a drawing. These were emotional to look through after deployment because some of the things the kids wrote were pretty raw, "When are you coming home?" I've also taken a lot of pictures during deployment for the purpose of doing an online photobook to share after deployment. However you do it, scrapbooking and building the days you missed sharing as a family are a great way for the children to share their thoughts and experiences with their deployed parent once deployment was over. Even having those little things about how much they missed their deployed parent is a great way to have a conversation about those feelings and connect again, "I see you wrote how much you missed me. I missed you too. I'm sure on that day I was thinking the exact same thing."

4. Journaling
Journaling can be fun and I've mounted this a couple times with the kids. I ended up modifying it to the scrapbook pages because it was hard for the kids to sit down and focus on their feelings, whereas with other art forms, they got to express their feelings without dwelling so much on them. I have found that, for myself, sometimes I like to journal about the kids, share what they did and how they've been handling deployment. I have used this to share with my spouse during and after deployment.

5. Respecting their feelings
This sounds basic and like it should be a no-brainer... but it isn't. When you are trying to get the kids out the door and one of the kids is giving one word answers before bursting into tears. When you keep getting calls from the school. When your child stops talking. When their potty training regresses. When they sulk around at your feet and argue with everything you say. When they constantly bicker. Day in. Day out. And you have everything else to handle during deployment, everyone else to take care of... how do you get them to behave and respect their feelings? Maybe you don't. Maybe they don't behave. Maybe you take their side. Every circumstance is different and I have spent days (and days and days) crying, fighting, and overwhelmed because of behaviors during deployment. I have stressed. And then cried more. Talk to their school counselors. Talk to their pediatricians. Talk to your kids. Roll those sleeves up and let your kids know you are on their side. They aren't adults with cell phones and cars and computers where they can escape. They don't understand what's going on. Start the conversation with them. Hug them. Cry with them. You can set up boundaries and have expectations for their behavior while still being understanding as to where their behavior is coming from.

6. Don't push them
I have decided, "We will make videos to share with Daddy," or even one of our scrapbook projects and the paper chains... and it went horribly wrong. One of my boys walked out of the room. A different time they would all cry when I pulled out our project for Daddy. It was confusing. "Why don't you want to do this? Why won't you do this?" I just wanted their dad to feel loved and appreciated while he was away from home, having his own hard time, missing his family. And they said, "I miss him too much." It hurt. Seeing how long the paper chain was getting, the number of days glaring at them from the refrigerator. The day Daddy was supposed to get back coming and going. A video talking to a cell phone camera with no reply. Emails sent to nowhere with no reply. Words poured on a page unanswered. They were laying their hearts out to no one, with no validation, no reply, no response, except an expectation to do it again the next day. To the kids, it wasn't talking to Daddy. Daddy hugs them. Daddy sits with them. Daddy is there for them. Runs to them. Holds them. Listens to them. This was silence and it was deafening. So I stopped pushing them. I gave them space and I showed them other ways they could express themselves positively that met their own emotional needs.

7. Don't expect them to understand
"Why isn't Daddy here? Where is he? When will he get back? Why is he leaving again? Why can't he be here? Why would he miss this?" They don't get it. They don't understand the deployment. And, as they grow, they might just be angry about deployment. Dread it. And they know what to expect from deployment: silence, distance, tears, loneliness, pining, waiting, stress. They don't think about the fun movie nights you set up or the sleepovers you do or the number of ways you make it fun. Deployment is a loss. And they just wonder, "Why?" It's hard for them to work it out and sometimes reading books to build their vocabulary regarding their feelings or deployment helps. They can verbalize more and sort out more of how they are feeling. But it still swirls back to why... why again? Why now? It is hard with various ages and stages. Babies can't say that they notice this person who is so important to them is suddenly missing. Their sleep schedules might get thrown off or feeding patterns change though. Toddlers may have more tantrums or become very clingy-- will you leave them too? Preschoolers and elementary kids might regress in big or small ways with their physical or emotional behaviors. And as they grow they may have more stress over the things people say or the things they hear on the news. It is confusing to them. It is an intangible thing that they are suddenly faced with-- a word you have been telling them that suddenly means their parent has left for, how long? They don't quite grasp the time and, if they do, it feels never ending. How long is 6 months? That first week, that first month, feels like 6 months to them. It is very difficult with even one child to be there, be present, at the moments that they try to express to you what they are feeling. Often it is at inopportune times. You have a baby on your hip, dinner is coming together, you have to feed the kids and leave the house in 30 minutes, and your 1st grader walks over to you, wraps his arms around your middle and says, "Will you leave too?" It is in those little moments that you can help them navigate the complexity of the things they are feeling.

8. Be on their team
No one likes a military brat. Which you realize when you are raising 5 of them. Children don't care if their parent is gone for a week, a month, 2 months, 3 months, 6 months, or a year. Children don't care if their parent is leaving to work the reception desk at the Hale Koa or diffuse road side bombs. Children don't care if their parent hasn't deployed in 3 years. Or if this is the last deployment of the sea tour. Children. Don't. Care. They aren't comparing their parents' deployment to anyone else's. They aren't comforting themselves that "it could be worse." They are living in the moment and their present moment is that their parent is deployed. And this can affect their moods, their habits, their behaviors. They could worry about what they see on the news. They could get in trouble at school. They could regress in potty training or other behaviors. They could be clingy. They could be sensitive. They could be perfectly fine. It varies-- their age, their disposition, their duty station, everything. Every tour, every age, every deployment is different. Every kid is different. What was hard for them on a past deployment, might not be hard on the next one. You can anticipate some of the things that will affect them positively or negatively and you can help them navigate through things the best you can, but some things will come up. Some things will happen. And when they do-- when the school calls, when their friend's parent calls, when your child talks to you, whatever it is-- be on their team. Help them through their consequences-- good or bad-- and help them find a way to constructively express their feelings in the future. Build their vocabulary. Open the conversation with them and with their teachers and counselors. Plug them into resources and with friends who understand. Because there will be a group of people waiting to pounce when your child fails, "They don't get a free pass because their dad is deployed. They need to be responsible for their actions." "My kid's father deployed his entire childhood and he is just fine and he never acted this way." "Their dad isn't even gone that long and isn't even doing anything dangerous. They are fine." "Wait until they are teenagers. If you think this is hard, you don't even know what's coming." Understand this: being on your child's team doesn't mean you think they get a free pass on their behavior due to deployment. It means you want to help them make good choices and to work through their feelings better. And just because you find right now, this age and stage hard, doesn't mean you will fail in the future or that you are failing now. Take it one day at a time.

9. Be creative
There are so many ways to swoop in at the right time during deployment to make your child feel supported by BOTH parents! One thing that I love to do is to take lots of pictures and videos during the fun, good times for our family-- when my husband isn't deployed. I then play these for the kids during deployment. I've made videos for them that we can watch whenever we want. I record their dad reading to them at night. Those are sweet to watch during deployment. (Plus that helps me because I can fold a load of laundry while they watch a Daddy video.) I know people that do Daddy Dolls so their kids can "snuggle" their deployed parent each night. Lots of people go to Build a Bear and do a special voice recording for deployment. We like to do a deployment gift, something the kids can use through the entire deployment that will remind them of their dad, such as a camping compass with a flashlight. We hang up pictures all around the house of their dad. I make books of pictures of their dad and we look at those together. Shutterfly makes a slew of personalized products that are great for kids during deployment-- blankets, mugs, calendars, plates, cups... you name it.

10. Communicate
This is huge. Talk to the people involved with your child. Keep them aware of what is going on. Open the lines of communication with your kids' schools, teachers, baby-sitters, friends, relatives, everyone! Tell them your child's parent deployed. Tell them your child is having a rough week. Tell them their birthday just passed and they were sad their parent wasn't there for it. It doesn't all have to be a big deal. It can be a simple email or note, "Hey, just wanted to let you know my son has been really down lately. He knows his dad will miss his birthday and it's been affecting him a lot at home." These lines of communication help those people intimately involved in your child's life encourage them and support them when they need it most. If you feel like your child still isn't coping well, take advantage of the resources around you! Talk to your kid's school and plug them in to a school counselor (they work wonders!). Talk to your kid's pediatrician and see if insurance will cover counseling outside of school. Talk to your FRG board and see what resources they have available (or if they could do playdates with other military kids who "get it"). Find out what is offered on base, talk to your USO, Fleet and Family, whoever you can and they will help you. Find those resources. They are free and available to your family! They can and want to help you!

11. When you have lots of kids...
I'm adding a #11 for the parents of many. It can be hard dealing with everyone's individual emotional needs during deployment. You have your own needs. And then each of your children at each of their ages and stages have their own emotional needs. Even multiples process deployment differently. It can be hard feeling like you aren't there for everyone when they need you. Breathe. Take each moment as it comes. Sometimes you need to look your child in the eye and say, "Listen, I hear you. I want to come sit down and talk with you about this. I have to feed your sister and lay her down for nap and then I would love to have some special one on one time with you." Take a moment to find that time. It doesn't have to be long. It doesn't have to be immediate. It doesn't even have to mean all of your other kids leave the room. Every situation and every child is different. Sometimes I can tell my kids are just over stimulated from everything and instead of one on one time with me, they need to decompress for a little bit in a quiet, comfortable space (like their room) before coming and talking with me, now with a clearer head. Give yourself and your children the space to process the deployment. Find a rhythm that works for your family. Every family is different. Every child is different. Holding on and getting through (or surviving and thriving) looks different for every family. Simply being there and doing the day by day is consistency, is love, is showing them you are there for them so don't beat yourself up over missed moments or hard days. Doing the best you can is the best for your kids.

So, parents, what are your tips and tricks to get through deployment with kids? What would you add to this list?


Anonymous said…
This is such a full guide, thank you! It's quite useful for children (and parents) of different ages. For me personally, dealing with a two-year-old boy is the toughest when it comes to deployment, but there are tips to help!

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