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Communicating With Children During a Deployment

Children draw at a desk.

Exchanging Videos

Think about how you want to communicate as a family with your service member. Perhaps you want to send him videos of yourself and the children, and—similarly—see videos of him at his operating base so you can get an idea of his "home away from home." Taking this a step further, consider sending your service member videotapes showing your child watching the service member parent's videos to help foster a feeling of connection for your service member.

Shared Communications

If possible, make sure that your child gets her own phone and Internet time with the deployed parent, for example, using Skype or Facebook or another smartphone application. This individualized attention fosters connection between your service member and your child. However, do not force interaction on your child. For younger children, it may be upsetting or confusing that they can talk to Daddy, but he still isn't coming home. Let the child move at her own pace and guide the expectations when it comes to talking to the service member parent.

For parents of very young children and toddlers with developing language skills, trying to speak virtually can be extremely frustrating for the service member and child. Try to be as patient as possible and never take a child's lack of communication as a personal affront.

"I have found that my kids do better if they don't talk to their dad every day. It almost is too hard for them to hear his voice all the time and not be able to see him. So we try to have their phone calls with him be on the weekends when we have more time and they are able to tell him about their weeks." —National Guard spouse

You can also encourage your child to write letters and make cards for Dad that the two of you can take to the post office and send out together. In addition, as mentioned earlier, you can encourage your children's classmates to send letters, or get her teacher involved and send class pictures to the deployed parent. It's important to get your child's teachers engaged with the deployment so that they can monitor the child's behavior in class for any changes in behavior. This might include problems with attention, aggression, anxiety, or sadness.

"I never push her to communicate with her dad. When she was smaller, seeing him online made her behavior so much worse, so I realized it was her way of dealing with stress. So I stopped forcing it and explained to Hubby that he would have to do his best and, despite him missing her, it was best for her. She would eventually want to say ‘hi' on occasion, but it worked for us. Now that she is older, she will be able to email from her own account and initiate contact on her own. The other invaluable thing I did was make it OK for her to be mad at him for leaving. Kids don't want to be mad at their parents, but I assured her he still loved her and he could take it if she was mad. It helped for her to get those feelings out." —Air Force spouse

United Through Reading

The terrific United Through Reading program allows the service member to create a DVD showing herself reading a children's book. The service member then gets to send the DVD as well as the book that was read to her child. Once the child receives the package, he can watch the deployed parent reading to him. Not only does this encourage reading among children, it also gives them an opportunity to see their deployed parent on TV and lets them know that the parent is thinking about them. Deployed service members may have access to a United Through Reading program depending on where they're stationed. Learn more at www.unitedthroughreading.org.

Dog Tags for Kids

A great gift idea for your child is a set of dog tags specifically made for your child from the service member parent, with the year and location of the parent's deployment on one side and your child's name on the other. These will be sent for free to your service member, who can then send them from overseas to your child. Learn more at www.dogtagsforkids.com.

Communicating with Children about Deployment  
Three- to Four-Year-Olds No concept of time. A three-year-old thinks that three months is next week. Parents need to use markers, such as, "Dad/Mom will be home right before your birthday" or "before this holiday."
Five- to Six-Year-Olds Better understanding of time. They understand that three months is a long time. Calendars are helpful. You can mark the calendar and say, "This is the day when Dad/Mom is supposed to come home."
Seven- to Eight-Year-Olds Understand time and bigger concepts. They will be able to look at the calendar and mark it. You can say, "This is the day when Mom/Dad is supposed to come home." This age group understands concepts like good and bad. You can say that Dad/Mom is going away to take care of the bad guys or bad things.
Nine- to Twelve-Year-Olds Abstract thinking has begun. They are aware of the news and can understand concepts like the "national good." You can tell them a return date, and they will understand the time frame. Reinforce this age group's skills by providing them with pre-stamped envelopes, as well as private email accounts, for communicating.
Older Adolescents This is a challenging age group. This is an emotional period under the best circumstances. They can experience a range of emotions from feeling anxious, proud, sad, or even confused about their parent's deployment. And with one parent now deployed, these feelings can be especially difficult for the child to cope with. Reinforce open communication and social connectivity.

A Note on Children and Their Feelings

As soon as a child is old enough to notice the absence of the deployed parent, the child is old enough to experience the following feelings: anger, sadness, fear, confusion, abandonment, fear, anxiety, depression, or any combination of the above.

The problem with children who are struggling with these kinds of emotions is that they may be too young to fully understand and express their feelings. As the at-home parent, you will need to be watchful for changes in their behavior that may indicate they're struggling with unspoken emotions. If you have the skills to address this situation, handle it immediately; if not, seek professional assistance to help guide you.

As the home parent, you should never assume that what your child is doing is an accurate expression of what your child is feeling. If your child is acting out in school or at home, or seems extremely irritable or angry, take your child to a counselor or therapist to rule out anxiety or depression. Children have a harder time accurately identifying their emotions than adults do.

You can help your child understand his emotions by purchasing children's books that identify different emotions. These books help children understand what different emotions look and feel like. You can also help your child by being honest about your own emotions. If you're sad, frustrated, or angry, tell him so and why. Encourage your child to use words to identify his feelings. The more your child is able to understand what he's actually feeling, the more you can help your child cope with that feeling.

"We are very open. We talk about fears. Each deployment, those fears resurface again. The older my kids get, the bigger their fears get. We don't make any unrealistic promises. We try to reassure them, but don't make promises about anything. You can't predict the future. We just make sure that our kids know how much their dad loves them and will do everything that he can to come home safe to them." —Army spouse

This excerpt is provided courtesy of the acclaimed free digital resource "Everyone Serves." Download your free copy with additional media content today at everyoneservesbook.com.

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