Navigating Military Deployments with Children: Interactive Ideas to Share the Time and Experience as a Family

Deployments are a challenge. Deployments as a family have added complexities. Often, it initially seems that the nature of extended military separations and children’s capacity to understand based on their developmental stage is at odds. I have worked with many parents who struggle to find the ways to explain the concepts to their children, particularly:

  • Why Daddy won’t be home for a long time?
  • Where Mommy is going to be if she’s not at home?
  • What does 4 months mean to a pre-school child?
  • How are we going to pass this time meaningfully?

In my work with military families, not only have I heard the questions, but I have also witnessed incredible creativity aimed at bridging connection during times of physical absence. Here are a few ideas to aid in addressing these common challenges:

The Deployment Wall

Dedicate a space in your home as a deployment wall. An interactive wall could include a map showing the family’s location and the deployed service member’s location; two clocks that display each respective time zone; a calendar to mark off days or paper chain with similar purpose; an attached folder to serve as a mailbox where family members can place artwork and letters to be mailed out to their parent.

Let your creativity out as you explore what would be meaningful for your family in this corner of your home.

Incorporate Traditions from the Deployed Parent’s Current Region/Country

Help your child dive into learning about the world and other cultures; this can even begin before the deployment. The military provides for exposure to other ways of living, and even the home front family can utilize the opportunity to broaden their worldly view.

Some families have spent time learning key phrases in the language of the deployed nation; practiced cooking at least one traditional meal for each deployed month; or sought out media set in that location (movies, shows, documentaries, books).

Marking Time in Concrete Ways

It is true that younger children do not have a full grasp on how time passes and therefore sharing that a deployment is 6 months long is not initially helpful. However, younger children do anchor well to holidays and traditions.

One idea is to pre-assemble the box for a care package for each month and have them lined up in the garage to serve as a visual reminder. A family I worked with in the past, pre-labeled each box with the holiday/milestone that box’s month corresponds with in order to help the child (i.e. the Halloween box, the Thanksgiving box, the Christmas box, Dad’s birthday box, the Valentine’s day box, etc).

Introduce Children to the Language and Concepts

Many families share a sentiment similar to: “Hayden is only 3, she doesn’t know what a deployment is so we will tell her that Mom is gone for work.” While it  is likely true that your child does not yet know what a deployment is, you have the rich opportunity to teach them, just as you have for every other concept they have learned to date.

It is important to give children language for the things they are experiencing; it helps provide a sense of safety and it helps children differentiate varying situations. For instance, if language like “work” or “a trip” is used to label a 9-month deployment, that child may become very concerned when adults talk about having to go to work (a typical one-day shift) or on a trip (just for the weekend), imagining another long stretch without their caregiver.

In addition to what you can share with your child, there are a number of great books for children that center on military life topics.   Sesame Street has a collection of videos as well.

Deployments, yearlong rotations and extended training duties are unique burdens on military families.  Inherently, physical separation challenges connections between parents and children; however, military families continue to demonstrate resilience and creativity in the face of these obstacles. As I have heard time and time again, a deployment is what you make of it. And there are numerous ways, beyond these ideas, to thoughtfully foster meaning and connection in the face of time apart.

  • Venée M. Hummel, LCSW is the Assistant Director at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Centerstone in Clarksville, Tennessee, and an instructor at the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. She provides clinical services to veterans and military-connected family members, with a specialty focus on evidence-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention, and the impact of deployments on children, couples, and the entire family. Administratively, she oversees clinical programing at the Cohen Military Family Clinic and champions evidence-based practice for all clients. She previously completed a fellowship in combat trauma research, assessment, and intervention at the STRONG STAR Research Consortium and Consortium to Alleviate PTSD at Fort Hood, Texas. Ms. Hummel is also the proud daughter of a U.S. Army soldier with over 30 years of active-duty service, and she is honored to dedicate her career to giving back to the community that helped raise her.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.

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