Months or years of training leave most service members feeling prepared for the work aspects of deployment, but preparing your family and your children for the changes that come with losing a member of the family for an extended period of time is incredibly difficult.
One of the most difficult issues leading up to deployment when you have children is trying to truthfully explain what is going on and what you’re doing without scaring them or adding additional stress. The process of talking to your children about deployment and how much you tell your children depends largely on their age and maturity level.
We put these tips together for you to use when deciding how to talk to your children about deployments.
Young Children (<6)
Even little ones understand enough to be affected by the absence of a parent.
Clingy: Even if your child is usually very independent, don’t be surprised if their reaction to the news is to become very clingy. Be prepared to give them more attention.
Comfort Items: Many children (as well as yourself) may appreciate the symbolism behind a comfort item “trade”. Stuffed animals or sweat shirts are great to trade so they have something to hold on to when deployment feels especially lonely.
Say Goodbye: With younger kids it is tempting to slip away while they’re sleeping or at school etc. Although this avoids the sadness of the goodbye, it can leave the child with a serious sense of abandonment. As difficult as it may be, a proper goodbye is better for everyone.
Literally: Children in this age group are very literal. They will often have questions that have to do with how this will look and work in their routine. Explain to them that their needs will be met and explain things that might change.
Children in this age range have a wide variety of understanding and maturity levels. You will really have to cater your explanation to your child’s understanding.
The 3rd Degree: Children of this age are highly inquisitive and therefore will ask you a hundred questions about deployment. Be prepared to answer them as truthfully and accurately as possible.
Examples: Children work well with real-life examples. If you know another military family that has recently dealt with deployment, use them as an example. Seeing that a family can go through deployment and reunite afterwards will give everyone a sense of relief. If you do not have a real life example check a kid friendly book from the library about deployment.
Expression: Children at this age are usually confused when something emotional like a deployment is about to happen. They are experiencing new emotions and it is very likely they won’t know how to express them. Expressing your own emotions will help them learn to verbalize their feelings as well.
By this age they have a fairly solid idea of what war is, what exactly you’re doing, and the dangers that go along with the job. However, questions about your location and wellbeing will still come up and be sure to answer them truthfully.
Logic: During the teenage years, the mind is looking for logic. Try to give them facts and statistics if they are asking a lot of questions about your safety. Show them your equipment so they are fully aware of how you’re protecting yourself.
Milestones: Expect a potentially hostile reaction if you will be missing important events such as a graduation, their 16th birthday or prom.
New Roles: Teenagers will also be concerned with how their role in the family will change. Especially if they are the oldest child or an only child, they may be wondering how much of an adult role they will now assume.
Acting Out: The underlying idea with breaking rules is “they can’t leave if I’m bad.” Because they are generally self-conscious at this age, teenagers will also use rule breaking as a way to express their feelings without looking weak.
Never make a promise you can’t keep. Children will often put their parents on the spot with a question like “are you coming home?” to seek reassurance. It’s tempting to make a definite promise but phrase it as “I’m very well prepared and our number one priority is making it home safely.”
Let your children be involved in the pre-deployment process. Letting them help you pack is a great idea.
One of the most important things for people with multiple children is to make sure they spend time with each child individually before they leave. Ensure that they know they are important no matter what.
Honesty really is the best policy when it comes to explaining deployment to your children. If you’re concerned about what to say, remember that making promises you can’t keep, lying about the realities or not saying anything at all can really cause problems down the road if things don’t go exactly as planned.
Adrienne May is a military spouse. Her husband is an Army soldier and now is serving in the Army National Guard. Together they have three children from preschool to pre-teen. Adrienne has a Bachelors Degree in Sociology & Non-Profit Management, and is actively involved in family readiness and disaster preparedness on the state level. She spends her free time advocating for military family programs, homecoming transition programs and adequate veterans benefits.
Military Family Central is your community for you to talk, share, relate, help and be helped by other military families and the tips and advice you'll find here.
Adrienne May maintains Military Family Central for Veterans United Home Loans, the nation's leading VA-approved lender. As a mom of three, from toddler to teenager, and wife to a National Guard solider, Adrienne has built up a massive library of resources, tips, articles and contributors for military families of all shapes, sizes and branches!