Keeping up with your family while you're deployed takes planning and effort. But your commitment to remain an important part of your child's or teenager's life can help both of you handle the challenges of deployment. At the same time, it will reassure both of you that your connection will remain strong despite the miles between you.
What you can do before you deploy
Before you leave, let your child or teenager know how important it is to you that you stay connected. Talk about the challenges your family will face during the deployment and how being in close contact will give each of you emotional strength.
- Find out what communication options will be available. Your unit commander should be able to tell you whether you'll have computers and Internet access, and if so, whether you'll be able to email, instant message or use video conferencing to stay in touch with your family. Also, find out whether you'll be able to send and receive packages regularly and whether you'll be able to use your cell phone for calling or texting.
- Think about the different ways you might want to stay in touch. Buy a few international calling cards if you'll be relying on pay phones. If you don't already own a digital camera or video recorder, buy an inexpensive one so you can easily share your experiences with your family. If you'll have a reliable, high-speed Internet connection, you might also buy webcams for yourself and for home so you can chat via video.
- Make plans for special occasions you'll miss. Consider buying birthday and holiday gifts ahead of time and writing notes or cards for your partner or caregiver to give to your son or daughter on the special occasions. This will free you from having to mail your gift or card and worrying about whether it will arrive in time.
- Contact your child's teachers and coaches. Let them know you'll be deployed and ask them to keep you in the loop about grades, behavior, accomplishments, school plays and any other information about your child's or teenager's school life. Give the teachers your email address if you'll have Internet access. Studies show that schoolwork often suffers among children whose parents are deployed. Your active interest shows your child or teen that school is a priority for you.
- Learn about the area of the world where you'll be deployed. Research this part of the world together. Find out what kinds of animals and plants are native to that region. Learn about its history, architecture, customs and culture. Talk about the differences between that country and the United States. You can branch out into a discussion about the merits of democracy, but your primary purpose should be to spark your child's or teenager's interest in the region where you'll be you can all feel more connected. When you're deployed, send your child photos, videos and your observations of life in that part of the world.
- Look at a calendar with your child. Break out the calendar or appointment book you'll be bringing with you. Sit down together to flip through the months and jot down the important occasions. Use this as an opportunity to talk about your feelings and to let your child or teenager know without a doubt that they'll be on your mind on the day of the school play, birthday and every other special event that comes up while you're deployed. Also, talk about ways you might share those moments. For example, you could ask your partner or caregiver to record the school play, or your teenager might decide to call you from the sidelines after a big game.
- Read the same books. Ask your child or teenager to give you a reading list. Get copies and read these books yourself while you're on deployment. You'll feel part of your child's life by sharing the experience of reading the same book and it will be fun to discuss your opinions. You'll also be letting your child or teenager know that you consider reading to be a worthwhile activity.
How to stay involved while you're deployed
Because your duties will consume much of your time and energy, try to make a habit of staying in touch with your family while you're deployed. Otherwise it may fall to the bottom of your list. Frequent contact with your family can help you get through difficult times. And your transition back home will be easier on everyone if you have kept up with each other's lives.
- Set a schedule to stay in touch. As much as possible, keep the connection going between you and your child. Set a schedule of phone calls, emails or letters, but make sure your child knows that there will be times when the Internet is down or you'll be too busy to be in touch, and that your family shouldn't worry if they don't hear from you as scheduled. Your partner or caregiver can help reassure your child at those times.
- Check your calendar frequently. This will help jog your memory about important events coming up in your child's or teen's life and will give you things to ask about when you call or write. Or, if you use a service such as Google Calendar, you can receive email reminders of those big dates.
- Keep up with the little things. When you're in touch with your family, talk about everyday matters. Ask specific questions. For example, ask your teenager about what is currently being covered in history class and try to remember what you learned about the topic when you were in school. Find out the names of your child's teammates, whom he or she gets along with best, and why. Find out if the dog still sneaks onto the living room couch when everybody leaves the room. Hearing and talking about these ordinary events can be reassuring to both of you and will give you a good sense of what life is like at home.
- Play online games. There are so many to choose from, including fantasy games, checkers, chess and word games. Find out which games your child or teenager like. If you have high-speed Internet access, an ongoing game will be fun for both of you and help bridge the distance between you.
- Send text messages if you have cell phone coverage. This is a good way to send quick notes to your child any time of day or night to let your child know you're thinking of the family. Text your encouragement before a big game or a reminder to study for an important test.
- Send souvenirs. Children of all ages love to receive gifts in the mail. You don't need to send anything elaborate. It could be an interesting pebble you found on the ground, a simple handmade bracelet, or anything else that reminds your child of you and the area where you're deployed.
- Ask your child to send you keepsakes, too. Ask for anything that will help you feel included in your child's activities, such as the program from the school recital or the rotation for the gymnastics meet. Remind your partner or caregiver and your child to send you photos, too, including photos of them going about their daily lives.
- Send a narrated video or still photographs of where you are. Give your child or teen a sense of your everyday life by recording a tour or a series of still shots of where you sleep, where you eat and other areas.
How your partner or caregiver can help
Your partner or caregiver will play an important role in helping you and your child or teenager remain close while you're on deployment. Your partner or caregiver can do the following:
- Remind your child or teenager when you will be calling. If you're on a schedule, you and your child will be disappointed if your call is missed.
- Bring you into conversations. Even a simple, "I wonder what Dad's doing right now" or "Mom would love to hear about what you did today" will keep you in your child's mind.
- Remind your child or teenager not to burden you with things over which you have no control. Although you want to stay involved with your child's or teenager's life, there are some things you're better off not knowing because they could distract you from your mission. Ask your partner or caregiver to reinforce to your child the difference between news that will make you feel included and information that will just upset you. You'll be happy to hear that your teenager passed his or her learner's permit test; not happy to find out that your teenager dented the fender backing out of a parking space. The same goes for pulling you into family arguments. If your teenager is angry with your partner or caregiver about the punishment for denting the fender, he or she should find someone else to complain to, not you.
- Encourage your child to come to you with questions, advice or homework help. Even though you're far away, you can still provide your child or teenager with your wisdom, expertise and knowledge.