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When Mom or Dad is in the Military

Helping children deal with long-term separation

When Mom or Dad is in the Military
July 2013

Mindy was 32 weeks pregnant when her husband Rob left for Afghanistan. "Watching the busses drive away was the worst feeling in the world – all the 'what ifs' started entering my mind," Mindy recalls.

Two months later, their son Landon was born. Handling her husband's deployment was trying enough, but doing so while raising their first child alone was incredibly difficult. "I didn't think I was strong enough to do it on my own," says Mindy.

Landon was almost six months old when his father returned. For the first few months of his life, Rob was able to see his new son via Skype. On the morning of Rob's arrival home, Mindy was full of emotions. She was excited to see her husband, but unsure of how Landon would react.

She didn't need to worry. "Normally when a stranger held Landon, he would cry. But when his daddy held him for the first time, it was as if they had known each other the whole time. It was the most amazing feeling finally having my family together."

The fact is, it's not uncommon for kids to grow up with a parent in the military. In 2011, roughly 1.3 million Americans served in one of the five branches of the military, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of these military personnel have children, and these kids inevitably face a variety of challenges unique to military life – most notably, deployment. Below are some suggestions for families dealing with this situation.

What your child is experiencing

Children – especially younger children – thrive on consistency and routine. When mom or dad is in the military, often the only thing that's consistent is the lack of consistency.

Dr. Nerissa S. Bauer, Behavioral Pediatrician and Assistant Professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, explains: "Children may feel a host of different feelings such as anxiety, sadness and anger. Much of this is related to the separation and uncertainty of when the parent will be back home."

Before mom or dad deploys, it's important they talk honestly with their kids about this upcoming situation. Dr. Bauer explains that parents should "give enough information to communicate to the child that the deployment will take place, then allow the child's questions to guide how much more information the parent should provide."

Dr. Bauer also says that before a parent leaves, it's important to come up with a ritual that the parent who will be deployed shares with the child, and that the other parent can continue during their absence. "I often suggest specific children's books to help children start the conversation of feelings. Stories about similar situations allow for active discussion of what is occurring and allow children another way to process what's happening."

Staying connected

Speaking of routines, it's important to establish how your children will be communicating with the deployed parent. While long-distance phone calls may not be practical, there are many ways to keep in touch. Email, instant messaging, online photo albums, Facebook and Skype are just some of the ways to stay connected during deployment.

Mindy says Skype was essential for talking with Rob, as it gave Landon a chance to see his father regularly. She also says she posted many pictures on Facebook, which was easy to do with her Smartphone.

Don't forget snail mail -- sending care packages is a great way to get kids involved. Mindy says the flat-rate boxes from the post office were a lifesaver, as they allowed her to send candy, personal care items and even Girl Scout cookies without paying exorbitant shipping fees.

Advice for the parent at home

Deployment isn't just difficult for kids; it's hard for parents, too. Explains Dr. Bauer, "It's challenging for the parent at home since he or she can feel like a single parent for the period of time, juggling everyday life and trying to keep routines for children so that things are as 'normal' as possible."

In addition to keeping a strong line of communication open with your partner, it's also important to have a network of friends and family who can help you through the deployment. Erica, a mom of two whose husband has faced several periods of active duty, says it's critical to have people you can lean on. "You can't do it by yourself – it takes a village!"

Lastly, don't feel like you have to "do it all" in your partner's absence. Says Erica, "You can have bad days. Drop the kids off for no reason except that you need you time! You don't have to be super mom or super dad -- you already are just because you're there."

Tags: In This Issue, Parenting

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