Helping Children Deal With a Parent’s Deployment

by Joseph White

Deployment can be a difficult time, for both the adults being deployed and the families they are leaving behind. Children face a host of special issues when one or both of their parents are deployed. The deployment cycle is best thought of as three separate phases:

1. Pre-deployment

2. Deployment

3. Reunion

Each phase has unique issues that may require time to sort through, particularly for children. Behavioral and emotional changes in children may occur even after their parents arrive back home. Everyone will have changed during the separation, so being together again may require some adjustments.

The pre-deployment period can last several weeks to just a few hours. Children need to be told where their parent is going (even if only general locations are available), when the parent anticipates returning, and why their parent is leaving. Discussing the deployment can help children understand that parents are not leaving because of something the child did and that they will be coming home.

Educators and other caregivers play a special role in the lives of children during a parent’s deployment. When everything else is unsettled, school can serve as an oasis of stability for children. Due to the amount of time spent in school, teachers are often the first to notice behavioral or performance changes. Educators can serve as extra eyes and ears for the parent staying at home or the child’s guardian. Given the number of additional burdens placed upon caregivers, this backup can be extremely useful. Watch for any changes in a child’s behavior or school performance. This can be a scary time for children. Their feelings and concerns may be expressed in a number of ways. Encourage the courage of children.

The reunion phase actually begins a couple of weeks before the parent’s return as the child begins to anticipate the reunion. Children feel a mixture of excitement and fear during this time. They will be wondering what the reunion itself will be like and questioning: “How has Mommy/Daddy changed?” “Will he recognize me?,” “Will she know who I am?” This phase can actually be the most difficult for children, so support is especially crucial as the deployment nears its end.

Children are exposed to more now than they were even a few years ago. Media coverage of conflicts around the world allows for regular glimpses into situations faced by the military. This information is often inappropriate for children. The scenes they can see on television may themselves be a source of stress, as well as a trigger for new worries about the safety of their loved ones. Encourage adults to limit the television coverage children can see. Also encourage adults to read news articles prior to children to ensure they are appropriate for children. Both of these tips are for all of the adults in a child’s life, not just a child’s parent or guardian. If a child is exposed to something upsetting, talk about it. The news may have sparked or rekindled fears that need to be discussed.

Children may also need help dealing with anti-war sentiment. Sometimes  the opinions people have about war or a particular war may cause the children of those serving distress or worry. While one would hope that people, particularly adults, would exercise forethought in discussions of such weighty topics around children, sometimes upsetting things are said around or even to children. If a child is disturbed or upset, encourage him or her to talk it through. Also encourage adults to be thoughtful of children and the situations they are facing before they speak in front of them.

For more information on how parents, families, educators, and Church communities can assist children during a parent’s deployment, see the Military School can serve as Child Education Coalition website .

Dr. Joseph White is a Clinical Child Psychologist and is Board Certified in Sexual Abuse by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.