Children going through deployment may experience many of the same effects as children of divorce. They worry about what will happen to them. They worry that the non-deployed parent will leave, too. Who will take care of them? This is particularly true if the family has trouble with mail deliveries or pay allotments which is sometimes the case in early days of separation. Preparing a child emotionally prior to departure will help the child cope as the servicemember leaves for training or for deployment.
Make sure children know they are loved. Whenever there is distress in a family, children assume responsibility for it. They may feel responsible that a parent is going away or feel that the parent does not love them any more. Providing consistent, loving assurance will help alleviate this.
Be Truthful. Children are very perceptive! As soon as the servicemember starts planning and preparing for a drill or deployment, the child will catch on that something is up. Do not lie to your child in an attempt to shield him or her from the truth or they may assume something worse. Talk to your child openly and honestly.
Share Feelings. Children often lack the vocabulary to share their feelings. It will help if parents talk about their own feelings which will help children communicate their feelings. Let your child know that even negative thoughts and feelings are OK and normal.
Explore Destination. Using a map or globe, show your child where you are going and chart your route. Using books or encyclopedias, explore weather conditions, cultural norms, or products produced in that region.
Communicate with Teachers. If your child is school-age, let the teacher know what is going on at home. The teacher may use maps and chart your travels with the class!
Design an Activity to Pass Time. With your child, design or create an activity to help mark time. For younger children, make a paper chain with a link for each day you will be gone that the child can use to measure time (the child will break a link each day). For an older child, choose a book that you both would enjoy and each read a pre-assigned passage everyday.
Show Your Workspace. If possible, set aside time to show your child the ship and where you will be eating, sleeping, and working. Or, take your child to the armory prior to departure and show him or her the artillery guns or weapons that you might be working with while away.
Let Your Child Help You Pack. Letting your child help you pack will allow him or her to be more involved in the process and also allow them to "care" for you. If possible, let them decorate the inside of your footlocker. Not only will they have great fun but you will enjoy their artwork for days and months to come.
Signs of Distress
Even with the best laid plans and a cheerful demeanor, parents cannot always prevent their children from experiencing stress when the Reserve member is called to duty. They may not fully understand why Dad or Mom is gone and they may worry about their safety. They will also be very perceptive to what the parent at home is feeling. These fears may consciously or subconsciously trouble children. The following are signs of separation anxiety that children may exhibit when their parent is away.
Preschool or Kindergarten Age Children
Clinging to people or favorite toy or blanket.
Unexplained crying or tearfulness.
Choosing adults over same-age play mates.
Increased acts of violence toward people or things.
Shrinking away from people or becoming very quiet.
Sleep difficulties or disturbances (waking, bad dreams)
Eating difficulties or change in eating patterns.
Fear of new people or situations.
Keeps primary care giver in view.
Any of the signs listed above, and:
A rise in complaints about stomachaches, headaches, or other illnesses.
More irritable and crabby.
Problems at school (drop in grades, does not want to go, or general complaining)
Anger toward at-home parent.
Any of the signs listed above, and:
Acting out behaviors (trouble at school, home, law)
Low self-esteem and self-criticism.
Misdirected anger (lots of anger over small things; directed at siblings/parent)
Sudden or unusual school problems.
Loss of interest in usual interests and hobbies.
Positive Aspects of Separation
Many parents worry about the negative impact of deployments on children. However, deployments offer many positive growth opportunities. Several psychological studies show that despite the distress during separation significant developmental gains are made by many children. Some positive aspects of separation include:
Fosters maturity. Military children encounter more situations and have broader and more varied experiences than children from non-military families.
Induces growth. Military children learn more about the world and how to function within a community at an earlier age. Taking on additional responsibilities in a parent's absence provides a chance to develop new skills and develop hidden interests and abilities.
Encourages independence. Military children tend to be more resourceful and self-starters.
Prepares for separations. In a life-style filled with greetings and farewells from deployments and relocations, helps for future farewells and building new friendships.
Strengthens family bonds. Military families make emotional adjustments during a separation which often lead them to discover new sources of strength and support among themselves.
A major function of family readiness is assuring that the family is aware of all support services available to them and how to access these services. It is imperative that the Reserve family realize that they are not alone and, chances are, whatever problem or situation they encounter has been addressed before.