There are times in the life of most children when they must deal with loss. Perhaps a close friend moves away; a pet dies; their parents get divorced; or myriad other situations that make them feel sad, afraid and abandoned.
For children who are part of a military family, separation from a person who is central in their lives is often a lengthy process—and one that gets repeated many times. When their father, mother or other close family member is deployed, these children not only need to deal with missing them; they also must handle the anxiety of knowing that their loved one is in danger.
The National Military Family Association conducted a study that revealed that kids who have a parent deployed experience higher levels of anxiety and stress than their civilian friends.
But there are things you can do to help your child prepare for a deployment and handle the time when a parent is away.
- Before leaving for deployment, spend as much extra time with your child as possible. Create special memories and let them know that, when you return, you will continue to work on fun activities together.
- Be honest with your child about the facts of your spouse’s deployment in an age-appropriate manner. You might want to get a map that shows where he or she is, and create a calendar of days to countdown when the parent will be back (if you know the date).
- Maintain a sense of stability by keeping as many routines the same as possible. For example, mealtimes, bedtimes and other day-to-day activities should continue as they always have. This can be very reassuring to a child.
- Encourage your child to express his or her feelings openly and honestly. Tell them it’s perfectly normal for them to feel a mixture of sadness, fear, pride and even anger—and let them know you have those feeling sometimes yourself.
- Keep the lines of communication going through letters, emails, phone calls or Facetime (when possible) with the deployed parent.
- Suggest ways your child can remain connected to the parent who is away—for example, by saying a special prayer each night, or making a scrapbook of their activities to show mommy or daddy when they return.
- Take care of your own mental and physical health. It’s important that you remain as steady as possible to help your children feel supported and safe. So reach out to your sources of support and also to other military families. There’s nothing like speaking with someone who understands what you are going through.
If you child or teen is struggling with depression, anxiety or anger related to the deployment of a family member, we’re here to help. Contact North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center at (516) 626-1971.
Elmo to the Rescue
Wondering how to help your 2 – 5 year old cope with a deployment? Sesame Street has created a program called “Talk, Listen, Connect,” a bilingual education outreach program designed for military families and young children to share, watch the program below.