Jason was sitting on the white bus waiting to be taken to the parade field for the big homecoming formation and ceremony. This was his third time coming home, but last time his son was only 14 months old. Now, his son is six and he has a three-year-old daughter. It went well last time, but this time feels different for some reason. Jason is thrilled and ready, but he can’t help noticing that he is also nervous to see his kids again.
Like Jason, you are likely more than ready to come back to your home and be reunited with your family. Many Service Member parents experience mixed emotions around reconnecting with their children: excitement to be back, nervousness about how they will react, and anticipation for the quality time you hope to make up. Whether this is your first deployment or fourth, you and your child are different at the end of each separation. This may be your first time having to reconnect with your child after a long absence, or this could be your third occasion, but that child wasn’t an independent thinking 6-year old when you came home last time.
Here are some considerations when reconnecting with your child after a deployment:
Start the process before you actually return home
Before you are on your way back for the big homecoming ceremony and celebration, begin to prepare your child for your return.. Even if your family is choosing to surprise your child with your moment of actual return, it is still important to begin this conversation in a broad sense. Many families use calendars or countdown phone apps to track the approaching day. In addition to marking the time, be sure that conversations begin about what it means that Mommy/Daddy is coming home, what it will look like and what that will mean for daily life. Provide young children with concrete examples (ex. Remember how Daddy used to help with bath time and bedtime stories? He will be coming home soon and I know Daddy is so excited to read to you again). And encourage older children and adolescents to have conversations about the upcoming homecoming as well; probe for their thoughts and feelings, including their hopes and any concerns.
With the increased availability of technology and connectivity for the majority of Service Members deployed around the world, it is very likely that through regular messaging and video calls, you learned a lot over time about milestones, new interests, behavior changes, and other child updates. Take some time to reflect on this information, as it will help you meet your child where they are now. Ask your homefront co-parent about important updates that will help you better anticipate your child’s reaction
Manage expectations and take their perspective
Children can be very surprising with their reactions; sometimes they are blown away by the most simple events and other times they seem to have zero interest in special moments. Unfortunately, there isn’t a surefire way to predict how your child will react when you are reunited. Their response can be impacted by so many factors: the time of day (did they miss a nap for the ceremony?), the environment (have they been overloaded by load noises and many people in a crowed gym full of excitement?), their stage of development, and their own processing of emotions. Some parents come home expecting to be near forgotten and are surprised when their child darts towards them with full celebration. Other times, children are more apprehensive at first and begin to warm up once they realize that you are actually here and staying.
It is helpful to manage your own expectations and remain open to meeting your child where they are in their reaction, not just at the initial reunion but in the coming days and weeks as well. Managing your own expectation doesn’t mean setting a low expectation or expecting the worst, but more so aiming to stay neutral. You know your child, so use that information to help you connect with them in ways that he/she enjoys and appreciates. Reassure your child often that they are loved, cared for, and supported. Share appropriate information with them about where you have been, what time together looks like now that you are home, and show understanding for their emotional reactions. In the days and weeks ahead, it can be helpful for your child to know where you are going and when you will be back, when you head to work or leave the house; for some children, they may worry that you are leaving for a very long time again.
When things aren’t going as smoothly as you have hoped for, try taking your child’s perspective in this situation, at their age and development. For young children who are very concrete thinkers, it can be very hard to wrap their mind around you not having a rectangle around your face any longer (an association byproduct of video calls on phones and tablets). This may leave them standoffish and unsure around you. School age children might be worried when you leave for work or an errand that you won’t be returning; this anxiety could make them clingy or hesitant to engage. Older children and adolescents often experience role and responsibility shifts over the course of deployment. These shifts may lead to them expecting to now drop all extra roles immediately upon your return, or they may struggle to let go of some of the status they have acquired in your absence. By growing in your understanding of their process, you will hopefully be better equipped to meet their current needs through reassurance, support, and collaboration.
Make time for regular, child-directed play and time together
Once you are home, it can be very beneficial for both you and your child to incorporate regularly dedicated playtime into your day (or quality time for adolescents). This time can range from 10 to 30 minutes or longer if you are able. Play isn’t only a time for fun; it is when children do a lot of their learning and connection building with others. This time together can also help you learn the new interests and abilities that your child has since you last spent time together before you left.
When engaging in this time, be sure to do a non-competitive activity that you both enjoy, and give your child plenty of space to have a voice or be creative. Also be aware of an activity that leaves the parent as the teacher, as this may cause some pressure for the child to “perform” or feel the need to “get it right.” Some low-stakes and enjoyable activities include: playing with a pet together, creating with play-doh, building with blocks or Legos, going for a walk or to the park, and pretending together with play food, tools, or dolls.
Reconnection for the homefront parent after a deployment
The need for reconnection between the Service Member parent and child is very necessary after many months or more than a year separated. While focusing on quality time, reestablishing your role in sacred routines like bedtime or weekend sports, and collecting on the many missed hugs and cuddles, it is also important to check in on how the homefront parent is doing during this time.
For some parents, after a long time apart, they are more than ready to hand over the reins and even get in some childfree alone time. Other parents express a desire to work on their own reconnection with their child, as after months of handling everything on their own (from home, to work, to childcare) has lessened their own ability for high-quality, intentional time with their children. And some experience some sadness when their little one is no longer wanting them involved in bedtime stories or sharing a goodnight kiss, after a year of snuggling together every night. All of the relationships in the family were impacted during the deployment and shifted with time and needs. Take the time to build reconnection in all relationships, as a family, between parent and child (for each parent), and even between siblings.
It is normal for deployment homecomings and the reconnection process with your child to be mixed with emotions from across the board, such as excitement, anticipation, joy, nervousness, and uncertainty, Reconnection begins before you are home and continues past the moment of initial reunion. Give yourself and your child patience, grace, and understanding as you navigate falling back into old rituals, creating new routines, and sharing with each other what it means to be back together again.