Military Deployment: 9 Techniques for Supporting Children

(Article first published as Military Deployment: Nine Ways to Support Your Children on Technorati.)

Not since World War II have so many children been faced with the challenge of having a parent deployed for military service. These are tough times for families.

In my practice I have found that it is helpful for parents to have a roadmap of sorts to follow during this period of uncertainty. After all, it is the parents that are the drivers of the family unit, and need to know how to prepare for the curves, bumps and obstacles in the road. My suggestion is to make a copy of whatever tips that work for you. Put this list in a place where you can read it each day. Add other suggestions to this list that you find from other sources, until you are satisfied that the needs of your family are being addressed.

1. Anticipate regression. Children may behave younger than they actually are. A child that is fully potty trained may start having accidents. Formerly independent children may become clingy, develop an imaginary friend, or have difficulty with bedtime. This behavior is common. Support them during this period of transition. Provide comfort and assure them that you are there for them. When they feel emotionally stronger they will resume their former level of functioning.

2. Keep their lives predictable. Keep up routines, schedules and expectations. Do not let guilt that your child has an absent parent prevent you from having structure and rules. Structure will provide reassurance and stability for your children. Children thrive on boundaries. Don’t let them convince you otherwise!

3. Anger masks sadness. Sad children often look angry. The child that strikes out at a friend or kicks the sibling may really be acting out his feelings of grief. While such behavior should never be accepted, the parent can help the child by helping them learn healthier ways to express their true feelings. Young children may not even be aware of what their feelings are, and will benefit from having it explained to them. Children may also experience somatic complaints that are rooted in feelings of anxiety, fear and sadness.

4. Inform teachers and coaches. Your children may behave differently in other environments. They may act out, have shorter attention spans, withdraw, etc. Notify other significant adults that a parent had a military deployment. They will then be prepared to be a positive support to your children.

5. Help children manage feelings of powerlessness by doing something directly related to the absent parent. My suggestions include working on a project for the parent’s homecoming, writing cards, drawing pictures to send, making videos to share via YouTube, etc.

6. Read your children a book related to deployment. A publication issued by the U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Command Child and Youth Services, http://old.armymwr.com/cys-mages/Deployment%20A%20Compendium%20of%20Resources.pdf, has a long list of resources including books, websites and other tools that can help children. Some of the resources help the adults to help children.

7. Talk about the deployed parent. Include this parent in daily chatter. Talking about the parent will not make your children sadder. Rather, it will let your children know that they are permitted to share their feelings and thoughts rather than to stuff them inside. Stuffed, unresolved feelings are likely to be acted out in an unhealthy manner. Young children may feel that they are responsible for a parent’s departure; that they are being punished for having been bad. Talking with your children will help you learn if they have any misconceptions requiring clarification.

8. Communicate honestly. Children have one absent parent, so they are very dependent on and need to trust the remaining at home parent. Adjust shared information so that it is acceptable to both the age of your children as well as their emotional maturity.

9. Look for opportunities to laugh with each other. Shared laughter is healthy, fun, bonding, and helps provide balance in our perspective on day to day activities. It is one more tool to use in keeping the family ties close.

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