Deployment can bring out strong emotions in every member of your family. Young children in particular may need extra reassurance during this time. Each stage of deployment presents its own challenges as well as opportunities for you to grow even closer with your preschoolers.
By understanding how your deployment might affect your children, you can provide the extra comfort they need while also strengthening your bond with them.
Because children tend to reflect their parents' emotions, you can get a good idea of how well you are coping with the upcoming deployment by watching your preschooler. If there is a lot of tension in your home, you will probably notice some negative changes in your child, including:
- Clinginess toward you or the other parent.
- Restlessness and irritability.
- Reverting to previously outgrown habits or behaviors.
Often, preschoolers of a deploying parent behave in these ways because they are afraid something bad will happen to you, to the other parent, or to them. They may feel guilty that you're leaving and may think it's because of something they did. And they may even believe that you're leaving because you don't love them anymore. Here are some ways to help your preschoolers cope with pre-deployment stress.
- Be aware that your own mood may affect your preschooler. Try to find healthy ways to manage the stress that you and your partner may feel about your upcoming deployment, like exercise or private time to talk openly about your feelings and concerns. You may also find support through friends, the services and programs available through the military or Military OneSource.
- Talk about your deployment. As early as possible and with your partner, reassure your preschoolers in language that they can understand that things at home will be different for a while, but they'll be taken care of and you'll love them as much as ever.
- Be patient when answering your child's questions. Children tend to process new information by asking questions over and over again. If your child doesn't ask about your deployment, you may want to bring it up a few more times yourself, just to make sure the change is understood.
- Talk about ways you will stay in touch. Try to find out beforehand what communication options will be available to you while you're deployed. Explain to your preschooler in simple terms how you'll stay in touch.
- Record your voice. Record yourself reading children's books, singing or just talking. Your preschooler can then play the recordings anytime.
- Spend quality time. Strengthen your connection and create comforting, pleasant memories all at the same time.
- Give your preschooler two clocks. Set one to your local time, the other to the time zone where you'll be deployed and label it "Daddy or Mommy Time." The second clock will serve as a visual reminder of you and prompt some fun conversations about what you might be doing.
- Ask for help packing your bags. Getting your children involved in helping you pack your bags helps them feel part of the process and gives you both a chance to talk some more.
- Exchange comfort items. Trade stuffed animals, pictures or other small items so that both you and your child will have a small reminder of each other throughout the deployment.
- Make a goodbye plan. Include children in family goodbyes whenever possible by actually telling them goodbye instead of trying to slip away unnoticed. Try to keep goodbyes brief.
Everyone, including your preschooler, will undoubtedly go through emotional ups and downs during your deployment. Your child may act out and test limits more than usual or be afraid of various what-if circumstances. These may result in clinginess or reverting back to previously outgrown behaviors. You and your partner can use the following ideas to help your preschooler cope with deployment stress:
- Stay in frequent contact. Reassure preschoolers that they are loved by calling and writing as often as you can. Just make sure your preschooler understands that sometimes glitches can keep you from being in touch when you want. Your partner can help explain that to your child and offer reassurances when it happens.
- Ask your partner to help keep you in your child's life. Continuing to listen to your favorite music, eat your favorite foods and look at your photos while you're away will help keep you real and emotionally close to your child.
- Encourage the home front parent to stick to routines. Children take comfort in routines and will feel more secure if bedtimes, mealtimes and other important rituals remain unchanged.
- Maintain discipline at home. It's tempting to ease up on discipline when one parent is away, but children need limits and boundaries. Support your child's other parent, and gently remind your preschooler to help mommy or daddy by listening and behaving.
Your preschoolers' reaction to having you back home will be as individual they are. They may be thrilled, talk nonstop, and refuse to leave your side, or they may be shy or even seem afraid of you and keep their distance. Follow these tips to help you both adjust to your reunion.
- Prepare yourself for the changes in your child. Even a few months can make a big difference in the growth and development of young children.
- Stay close to home at first. If you leave soon after arriving home from deployment, even just for a day, your preschooler may become confused and worry that you'll be gone for a long time again.
- Get back into the parenting routine. Your partner and child are so used to having only one parent around that they may continue acting as if that's the case. Try not to let that happen by quickly responding when your child needs attention, helping with mealtime or bedtime routines and just having fun together. You might want to ease into discipline until you're fully comfortable with each other again.
- Let your children know how much you missed them. Show your children the pictures of them that you kept with you on deployment or tell them that thinking about them would always cheer you up.