Deployments are tough for most military families. But if you're the parent of a child with special needs, you'll be carrying an especially heavy load when your spouse is deployed. Even if it's just for a few months, you may need to depend on family, friends, and installation services for help and support. Careful planning and a positive attitude can go a long way toward making the deployment easier for the whole family.
Preparing for the deployment
You probably rely on your spouse's help to get through your day. Before your spouse deploys, line up support and organize your schedule. And be sure to take some time to plan for any emergency that may come up while your spouse is deployed.
- Have a support system in place. Your friends and family can offer emotional support - and practical help - while your spouse is deployed. Surrounding yourself with supportive friends can help the deployment seem a little less daunting.
- Consider time banking. Everyone needs help at one time or another, whether you have a spouse deployed or not. Time banks are growing in popularity across the United States and are helping build social supports in communities. Essentially it is an exchange of time and talents. Getting started is easy once you find other spouses or friends willing to participate. For example, you help Sally by watching her children while she runs to a doctor appointment. Sally is gone for two hours, so you have earned two "Time Dollars." You find out that another spouse, Rebecca, is really great at doing crafts with children. You ask Rebecca to teach craft projects to your children for two hours. You have now spent the two Time Dollars you earned and Rebecca has now earned two!
- Arrange respite care. Even if you don't use child care on a regular basis, plan to have someone who can give you a break as a caregiver so you can run errands or take some time for yourself. If you don't already use respite care, now is a good time to find out about local resources:
- TRICARE. Respite care is available through TRICARE for those families who are already receiving other authorized benefits through the TRICARE Extended Care Health Option (ECHO). Families can receive up to sixteen hours per month. The TRICARE ECHO Home Health Care (EHHC) benefit provides up to forty hours of respite care a week. For more information, visit the TRICARE's ECHO website.
- Medicaid. If your child is eligible for Medicaid, your state may offer respite care. Call your local Department of Social Services or Department of Health office for details.
- Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP). Your installation's EFMP coordinator may have information about other resources for respite care. To find the EFMP provider at your installation, visit MilitaryINSTALLATIONS, then enter the name of your installation and select "Special Needs."
- Help your child understand the upcoming deployment. Your child may not fully understand what deployment means. You can help your child by using visual aids, like a calendar, to mark the days. Before your spouse leaves, your whole family can make a poster with pictures and a world map to help track his or her location. You can also practice things like video conferencing to help your child understand another way you can stay connected while your spouse is deployed.
- Communicate with your child's teachers and therapists. Teachers and therapists should be aware of any changes in the household. It's important for them to recognize that sudden changes in a child's behavior may be a result of trying to cope with a parent's deployment.
- Get organized. Make sure you have all your medical records, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) documents, and other related information in one place. The Department of Defense has developed an organizer called the Special Care Organizational Record (SCOR) for Children with Special Needs. There is also a SCOR for Adults . You can order the SCOR online at Military OneSource or by calling 1-800-342-9647.
- Videotape or record your spouse reading books. Your spouse's voice and image will continue to reassure your child months into the deployment.
- Create rituals. With the help of your spouse, focus on daily routines you can keep up after the deployment begins. For example, you can create an evening routine of playing a tape of the deployed parent reading a book, then kissing the parent's picture goodnight.
- Take care of legal and financial matters and other necessities. Before your spouse leaves, make sure you have a power of attorney, medical power of attorney, or guardianship, if necessary. Your installation's Legal Assistance Office can help prepare the necessary paperwork. Use the Legal Assistance Office locator to find an office.
- Keeping your emotions in check may be the most difficult part of the deployment. As the at-home parent, you may be feeling lonely and sad. And as the parent of a child with special needs, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed. Keep in mind that:
- Feelings of sadness are normal. You may feel sad, isolated, and stressed while your spouse is deployed. To help alleviate some of these feelings, be sure to turn to family, friends, or support groups.
- Ask for help. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. If it's been a particularly tough day, ask a friend to watch your children for an hour while you take a walk or go to the gym. If you think you need more help, call your installation's Family Support Center, or chaplain. A professional, non-medical counselor at Military OneSource can offer coping techniques to help you deal with your feelings. Military OneSource can also refer eligible military family members to private counseling in their local communities at no cost to the family. Visit Military OneSource or call (800) 342-9647 to find out more.
- Simplify your life. Learn to say no to things you just don't have time to do. Try to get organized by keeping track of your schedule. Designate a place to keep things like your keys or your cell phone. Stock your diaper bag so it's ready to go and try to keep plenty of snacks on hand for both you and your child.
- Take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself is important to your long-term health. Even though it can be difficult, be sure to make time to exercise, eat healthy foods, and get plenty of rest.
- Remember, this won't last forever. Even though it may seem like a lifetime, the deployment will end and you'll be able to return to your usual routine.
Helping your child adjust
- Deployments are especially difficult for children - no matter what their level of understanding. As a parent, you can help your child communicate his or her emotions.
- Be alert to signs of stress. Children often have a hard time expressing their emotions. Headaches, sleeping problems, or behavior issues can be signs of stress. Help your child keep a journal to express emotions in writing or by drawing pictures. An older child can create an online journal - in words, photos, or both - to share with the deployed parent.
- Share your emotions, but don't overdo it. It's okay to let your child know you miss your spouse. But it can be scary for her to see you fall apart. Children will take their cues from you when it comes to expressing their emotions.
- Help your child share his feelings. Because children often have trouble expressing their feelings, you may have to help them come up with the words. If you say, "I really miss mommy when she's away," your child will have the words to voice his or her emotions.
- Use visual tools. Use a calendar to mark the days your loved one will be gone. You can even turn this into a nightly ritual, helping your child understand the passing time.
- Use pictures and stories to describe pre-deployment, deployment, and reunion. Telling your child simple, age-appropriate stories may help her understand the deployment.
- Help your child communicate with his or her deployed parent. Help your child write a letter or a postcard. Video teleconferencing (VTC) can be a great way for your children to keep up with their deployed parent.
- Avoid watching the news or discussing events that are happening in the area where your spouse is deployed. Your child may not fully understand the events and the media coverage may be overwhelming.Celebrate special occasions. Even though you may not feel like celebrating, it's important to mark holidays, birthdays, and other occasions with special meals and traditions. Not only is a celebration a welcome distraction, it can help mark the time until your loved one returns home.