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Helping School-Age Children Deal With the Cycle of Deployment


A military deployment can be challenging for every member of the family. Although school-age children (those between 8 and 12 years old) tend to be resilient, they are probably still dealing with strong emotions about your leaving and need your help to handle their feelings. Here's how you can provide the support and understanding they need to take some of the stress and fear out of your deployment and strengthen your relationship with them at the same time.

Before deployment

Your children may not be able to talk about how they're feeling because they may not be sure of their own emotions. Typical responses among 8 to 12 year olds whose parent is about to deploy include:

  • Shock, denial, anger or fear. Your child is old enough to be aware of world events and to be concerned for your safety.
  • Sadness that you're leaving.
  • Feelings of isolation. This is particularly true of children of Guard and reserve members.
  • Moodiness, whining and irritability.
  • Angry outbursts, possibly followed by clinginess.
  • Testing limits.
  • Acting out at home or school.
  • Reverting to previously outgrown behaviors.

When these feelings or behaviors arise, remind yourself that they are normal responses to a parent's deployment and potential signs of stress in your child. Follow these tips to help your school-age child cope with these pre-deployment emotions.

  • Listen to and talk with your child. As much as you're permitted to, describe your deployment. Listen to your child's concerns and answer questions without judging. Without overburdening your children with your feelings, let them know that you also wish you didn't have to leave. If your children say they're afraid you won't come back, talk about all of the training and practice you've had and how that will keep you safe.
  • Help your child find positive ways to cope with strong emotions. Encourage your child to talk and hang out with friends, play sports, or engage in some other healthy hobby or activity to deal with their emotions.
  • Give your child a job. School-age children tend to thrive on responsibility because it makes them feel important and grown up.
  • Spend quality time together. Strengthen your connection and create comforting, pleasant memories all at the same time.
  • Say goodbye. Though it may seem easier, try not to slip away while your child is at school or asleep. Involve your child in a brief goodbye.

During deployment

Your child will inevitably go through emotional ups and downs during your deployment, possibly including:

  • Acting out and testing limits more than usual.
  • Missing you at certain times. Your child may feel sad and lonely during times when you would ordinarily be there, such as at dinner, bedtime or special events.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Being irritable and overreacting to seemingly minor things.

Even though you're far away, there are lots of ways to tell your children you're still there for them:

  • Stay in frequent contact. Just be sure to explain to your children that circumstances may keep you from being in touch at times, so if days go by and they don't hear from you, you are still thinking about them.
  • Correspond directly with your children. Write letters or emails just for them. Keep the tone light and avoid topics that may frighten them. Let them know how proud you are of them for helping out at home while you're away.
  • Stay involved in your child's education. Your involvement in your child's education can keep him or her interested in school. Make sure the teacher knows you're deployed so she can be on the lookout for changes in your child's grades or behavior. You might also send trinkets to everyone in your child's class through the teacher and include some information about the area of the world you're in. Your child will feel proud and the class will learn something new and interesting.

Your partner has challenges as well and may find it difficult to keep up with everyday responsibilities. Your significant other can help the family manage in your absence by trying the following:

  • Helping your children process what they hear on the news or from other kids.
  • Maintaining discipline at home. Ask your child's caregiver to be sure that your children know that the rules and consequences are the same even though you're away.
  • Sticking to routines. Whenever possible, keep regular bedtimes and mealtimes and encourage your partner to continue family rituals and traditions in your absence.
  • Having your child spend time with other military children. Your child may feel lonely and isolated, especially if you're a Guard member or reservist, and may feel less alone with friends who are going through or have been through the same thing.

Post deployment

When you come home from deployment, your school-age children will probably want to spend a lot of time with you. They will have lots of things to show you and will crave your attention. They may also still be angry at you for leaving, may be afraid of your discipline, or anxious about the changes that your return will bring. The following guidelines can help you both adjust to life after deployment:

  • Prepare yourself for the changes in your child. Your child will have grown physically, developed new interests, made new friends and likely taken on new responsibilities. Take time to notice these changes and learn your child's new schedule.
  • Give yourself time to adjust. Your family and friends will want to be with you, but you'll need time alone to transition from what you experienced and adjust to life back home.
  • Go easy on the discipline. Your child is used to answering to the other parent or another caregiver and may resent you if you step in and try to take over. Let the other parent take the lead until you've been home for a few weeks. Meanwhile be sure to reach an agreement on rules and consequences.
  • Accept changes in your family. Your children may approach their household chores differently than you would, but it's important to resist the urge to criticize or correct. They are likely to be proud of their accomplishments and may feel hurt and sorry if they think you don't approve. Instead, thank them for their help while you were away.
  • Let your children know how much you missed them. Show them the photos of them that you kept with you while you were deployed. Take out the letters, schoolwork and artwork they sent and talk about how much it meant to you to receive it.
  • Get involved. Ask about the things your children did while you were gone. Ask to see their pictures, schoolwork, trophies and new toys. As much as possible, be an active part of your children's daily routines. Drive them to school, volunteer in their classrooms, help with their homework and generally involve yourself (without being too intrusive) in their lives.

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