Word just arrived and your service member is shipping off for deployment. Now what? And most importantly, how do I tell our kids?
If you’ve ever struggled to find the right words to say to a child regarding a parent’s deployment, read on.
1: Be Honest And Open
If your child has ever found you hiding in the closet eating candy, even after you took evasive action, you understand that kids can and will ferret out the truth. So be honest.
Let your children know in an age appropriate way (more on that later) that their parent will be deploying. This is part of military life, so they might be familiar with deployments from friends or neighbors.
Then let your kids ask you questions. Acknowledge that you will not be able to answer all their questions right now. If you think you might have answer in the near future, you can offer to revisit the question. But this disclaimer about not knowing will help your child trust that you are being honest.
Some questions might not have answers, now or ever. Be open about this with your child.
It is frustrating for your child when they have questions and concerns, but their parents don’t have answers. You might want to share how these unknown areas impact your life, as an adult and parent.
Remember, this is going to be a difficult time for every one in your family.
2: Plan Your Strategy Together
Sit down with your partner (or co-parent or parent in absentia) and talk together about what deployment will look like, based on what you know right now.
This might include:
- possible communication challenges for deployed parent
- child care challenges on the home front
- employment challenges on the home front
- strategies to stay connected
- countdowns to homecoming
- routines and running the house
- emotions and arguments
Bring a list of your concerns, questions and predictions about trouble spots to your sit down chat. This will help keep you focused and can prevent getting sidetracked by those “what if” tangents.
3: Provide Support And Plenty Of Love
Military spouses know it takes a village. And this is extra true during deployments! Luckily, your military family is ready to step up. We’ve always got each others’ backs!
Before your partner deploys, reach out to these key resources:
- Classroom teachers or child care providers
- School counselors or therapists
- Chaplains or other religious leaders
- Other family members
- Family Readiness Officer (FRO)
- Family Readiness Group (FRG)
Having all these people in your circle of trust expands the places you can turn for help when needed. With all these people supporting your child, it will be easier to notice if the deployment is impacting them negatively. Which means you can act to help sooner and faster.
Your child will also be able to reach out to these individuals for help, too. It’s important that they feel like they have places and people to go that are not you – the parent at home.
4: Make Your Child Feel Special
Sometimes, especially during the lead up to deployments, kids can feel lost in the shuffle. Everything seems to be about your deploying military service member. And that can make the whole deployment just feel awful.
During the pre-deployment time period, make time for each of your children to do something special – just for them–with one or both parents. You might think about:
- special day out together
- dinner or lunch date
- manicure or pedicure
- shopping spree
- book club with Mom or Dad
- beach or pool day
Find something your child loves, and do it with them!
You might also consider giving a small gift or little note from the deployment parent right before deployment. Some kids might life a duplicate set of their parent’s dog tags, a stuffed animal or a voice recording to hear their parent any time they need.
Throughout deployment, it can also be extremely busy. You’re trying to juggle regular life while riding solo and managing your own emotions. It can be a lot. Still, your kids need to feel all your love, every day. You could mimic the pre-deployment “special day” routine. Book a sitter, if needed, for your other kids and then take each child out for some one-on-one attention.
Another option is to create special days for the whole family regularly. Some families will create weekly fun, like Pizza Day or Movie Nights. Other families might make it monthly, with unique or really cool outings. And yet others will keep things more sporadic, like impromptu mental health days from school.
Think about your family’s routines and personalities. Then make some plans to keep things fun, light and (most importantly) loving.
5: Take Into Consideration That Age Matters
We shared it up top, but it is vital to match your words and actions to your child’s age or developmental stage.
Younger kids need things to be kept very simple. For example, you might share this with a preschooler or kindergartener:
“Mommy will be going on a long work trip. She’s going to leave in April and will be gone until after Halloween. While Mommy is gone, you and I will be holding it down at home together. You will stay at your same school and in this same house. Your life will keep on going.”
Older kids in elementary school may be able to handle a more mature discussion, like:
“Dad’s going to deploy to (country/region) next month. He should be gone about 6 months, which means that he will miss Christmas. What questions do you have?”
Middle school and high school students might have been through the deployment rodeo before, but you should still have the conversation.
At any age, answer your child’s questions, which might include:
- safety and risk
- transportation to and from
- communication options
- impacts on their daily life
Again, be transparent, compassionate and honest about how this deployment might unfold, including the unknowns.
6: Set Clear Expectations
Here’s the real deal, y’all. Life at home is going to be bananas as you settle into your deployment routines together.
But you can cut through some of the craziness by creating a routine and expectations. If your children are able to have conversations about this, at any level, involve them in the decision making.
You might create:
- chore charts
- monthly or weekly menus
- household rules
- reward systems
And then stick to your systems and charts.
Whenever my spouse leaves, even if it’s just a few days, my kids and I have a chat that goes like this:
“Dad is gone for X days/weeks. During this time, I’m running the show solo but all the same things need to happen. You both need to go to school, I need to work, the house needs to run with cleaning and laundry and cooking. Our dog needs to remain alive. So we need to pull together to keep things going. I am going to need you to be good direction followers and good helpers.”
Then I outline specific ways that I need their help:
- put your laundry into the bin
- pick up your toys before bed
- clear the table
- load and unload the dishwasher promptly
- feed, water, and walk the dog
Yes, it’s things they’re expected to do already. But tying the expectations specifically to being helpers while my spouse is away somehow motivates them to do more.
Being very clear from the get-go also helps my kids understand their role in a one-parent house. They know things will be different–because I explained how and why our lives would change. They know they need to do certain things–because we talked about it and there are written charts to help keep them on track. They know that emotions might run high – because we keep on talking about how we feel, what is frustrating us and how to resolve our problems peacefully.
So: be clear, be consistent and be constant.
8: Emphasize Together Time
When you’re one parent down, it can be tough to make time for each other regularly. You’re running all over the place even more than usual to do all the things, for all the people.
Intentionally set time aside just to be together. Put it on your calendar and make it non-negotiable. Seriously. Do it.
Now, together time is about quality and not quantity. So even 15 minutes a day of quality time where you are focusing on being together can be enough.
When you have your intentional together time, you might try these ideas:
- 20 questions
- board games
- hiking or walking
- dinner or lunch dates
- cooking together
- reading books out loud–yes, even for older children!
Set aside time for focused conversation during family meetings, too. Take this time to evaluate everyone’s emotions and how well the systems/expectations are working for your family. Then brainstorm solutions and adjust your routines or seek our supports as needed.
Taking time to be together and talk about these hard things keeps your family strong, resilient and flexible throughout the deployment.
9: Avoid Too Much Technology
Have you ever been doom scrolling on social media and then read one little thing that triggered an anxious moment? Yeah, me, too.
By now, parents everywhere have heard the “dangers” of unlimited screen time or tech access ad nauseam. But the dangers are there and they are real.
Technology can be a wonderful tool to foster connection, learning and relaxation. Too much can inhibit in-person social connections, can increase mental health risks and can contribute to lack of physical activity – to name a few adverse affects.
Just like you, kids need breaks from technology. Just think about the crazy headache you might get after a day full of Zoom meetings or being on your computer all day. That’s a real, physical impact.
Plus, if your child is constantly engaged in a digital world they might be missing out on making important in-person connections with you, their siblings, neighbors, friends and classmates. Yes, friendships can be forged online or in role playing games, but there should be a balance.
- 11 Tips to Handle Surprise Deployment Extensions Like a Pro
- Here’s How to Deal with Long or Extended Deployments
- 9 Proven (and Easy) Ways to Hack Deployment
Meg Flanagan is a teacher, blogger and military spouse. She owns Meg Flanagan Education Solutions, an education advocacy service dedicated to serving families on the K-12 journey. You can find Meg on Facebook. Meg is also available as a freelance writer and personal education advocate!