Having a parent deployed, regardless of the capacity, can have a profound and devastating effect on a child. Helping them stay connected to their deployed parent in some way is an important part of growing up in a military household. It’s equally important, though not to dwell on the issue, you have to find the right balance of feelings and connection.
If your child is missing their Mommy or Daddy, it’s ok to validate their worries and concerns. That deployed parent is always on their mind and simply not talking about the issue isn’t going to make it go away. Don’t be afraid to tell stories, talk about them, look at pictures or send letters and emails.
At the same time though, it’s important to not talk about the absent Mommy or Daddy too much. It’s crucial that children see that life can continue normally while their parent is deployed. If children continually see adults expressing worry and panic about the deployed parent, that only serves to further reinforce their fears and sadness. Instead, children should be shown that Mommy or Daddy can both fill any role for them and still have lots of fun, just like always.
The remaining parent, particularly if that is Mommy, needs to show that they can fill all roles of the household. Seeing the Mommy or Daddy can do the yard work, shopping, cooking, after school activities, keep the car running and still be there for bedtime stories is important. This shows kids that both mom and dad can do the same jobs, the absence of one parent doesn’t mean that their family life has to change. Seeing mom paralyzed by worry and fear while dad is away can give kids a massive sense of insecurity and in turn start worry about mom in addition to dad.
One of the best ways I’ve found to help sons keep connected to their dad during deployments is Daddy Dolls. After my husband’s deployment in 2010 I ordered one for each of my four sons. Daddy sits at the foot of the bed for my 11 and 13 year olds, but the two younger ones, 4 and 7, sleep hugging their Daddy every night. It’s a simple way that the boys can keep a constant connection to their dad.
We also had a life size cardboard flat daddy made that’s been great for the boys. Whenever one of them has a special event that dad would have attended, had he been home, we bring the flat daddy with us. We take pictures to send to Daddy, and he gets to be part of every event, no matter what part of the world he’s in. Flat daddy also garners positive support from other families, civilian and military. They thank the boys for their father’s service and makes the boys feel special for having their family’s sacrifice recognized. Flat daddy also serves has a great company keeper when one of the boys is really missing his Daddy. They’ll take him into whatever room they’re in and talk to him just like he was there.
Little rituals around the house can also be a great daily way to stay close to Daddy too. We keep a big bowl of Hershey Kisses and before brushing their teeth every night, each boy gets a “kiss” from Daddy. As his deployment winds down, and we have an exact return date, I make sure that the number of kisses in the bowl matches exactly the number of days left. This way the boys have a visual reminder as well that their dad will be home soon.
Visible reminders make a great way for kids to know that a deployment won’t last forever. Every day they have something look forward to and know that they can cross another day off the calendar. There’s an old tradition that involves tying a yellow ribbon around a tree when a loved one goes off on deployment. We do this at home and when Daddy returns, we make a big ceremony about cutting the ribbon off together as a family.
Another visible reminder that we use is a paper chain. Using their favorite colors (or Daddy’s favorite colors) the kids cut construction paper into strips that linked together form a long chain. Every day, the kids take turns cutting one link off the chain, until the last links signifies Daddy’s return home.
The parent that’s deployed can also do a great deal to help ease the absence for the kids. In our family, my husband let each of our boys select a Lego figurine to represent themselves. He took all of the figures with him on his deployment, even going so far as to glue magnets to them so they stick to his bunk. He’ll take the figurines with him when he can and takes pictures of them in various spots from across the world during his deployment.
Seeing their own figurines with their dad around the world helps the boys feel close to him while he’s away. I print the pictures out and the boys hang them all over the house, in their rooms and take them to school to show friends and teachers.
The final, and one of the best ways to stay connected is with technology like Facetime and Skype. Due to time zones and scheduling this can also be one of the most difficult ways to stay connected. It can be worked out though, and it’s worth getting the boys up before sunrise or letting them stay up until midnight so that they can see dad live on screen and hear his voice. While it’s no substitute for having dad at home, it lets the boys show dad school projects, sing him songs they learned at preschool and read stories. The whole experience can be very therapeutic for both the kids and the parent.
Having a spouse deployed is a challenge for any family. The separation and worry can make home life difficult for children and the remaining parent. If the at home parent makes an effort though, deployments can be handled with grace and relative ease.