Every deployment is different, and each child may react differently. Understanding how to support children during deployment begins with paying close attention to their reactions and using available resources when needed.
Seek help if children need it
Reactions to separation vary depending on the child, their age and previous experiences with separation. Be aware of their reactions, and try to determine if they are a normal, or are red flags that require additional support or professional help. Learn more from the Military Kids Connect website about age-specific reactions to deployment to look for in children, and parent resources you may find useful.
If you have questions or concerns about your child’s behavior, the Military and Family Life Counseling Program supports service members, their families and survivors with non-medical counseling worldwide. Trained to work with the military community, military and family life counselors deliver valuable face-to-face counseling services, briefings and presentations to the military community both on and off the installation. Learn more about child and youth behavioral military and family life counselors.
To access a child and youth behavioral military and family life counselor, you can contact your installation child development center, youth or teen center, an installation public school, your child’s military youth summer camp, or the commander or unit training point of contact.
To access military and family life counselors, call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647, call OCONUS, or schedule a live chat. You may also contact your installation’s Military and Family Support Center.
Encourage communication and community involvement
Talk with children about their feelings, and let them know you’re there to support them. While some children may ask many questions, others may feel better keeping their thoughts to themselves. Provide them with a notebook or journal so that they can write down their thoughts, make up stories or even draw pictures to express how they’re feeling. Visit the Sesame Street for Military Families website for more deployment resources for young children.
Encourage older children to get involved in clubs, sports teams or other community activities. This can provide a social network as well as something to divert their attention from separation issues. For more ideas, check out these 15 Tips for Helping Your Teenager Deal With Deployment.
Understand your child’s point of view
Try to understand deployment from your children’s perspective. School-age children are often around their peers who may hear and talk about deployed parents or current events. Although you can’t control what goes on at school or what’s shown in the news, you can offer children comfort by reminding them that their deployed parent is trained for their mission and has the support from others to keep them safe.
Teenagers should be approached differently about deployment than younger children. Let teenagers steer conversations by allowing them to talk about topics that are most important to them. This may be as simple as talking about how they’re dealing with deployment in general. Check out these tips from Military Kids Connect about helping teens deal with feelings.
Keep consistent routines at home
The deployment period is often a time when children act out. Parents or caregivers should let children know that family rules stay the same even while their parent is away. Maintaining consistency and routines as much as possible can help children cope. Mealtimes, bedtimes or traditions — like bedtime stories or family movie nights — shouldn’t change. Children find comfort in routine and consistency, particularly when other parts of their lives have changed.
Stay in contact with service members
Giving children and youth an opportunity to stay in touch with their deployed parent can help maintain their relationship. Encourage them to send letters, drawings, photographs, report cards, copies of school work, and videos or audio recordings to service members. Consider spending time with children to research the culture and customs of the place where their parent is deployed. This is a great way for them to feel more connected to their deployed parent.
Help children think of their service members every day
Simple things — like taking over their parent’s chores or listening to their favorite music — can remind children of their deployed parent every day. It can also help for children to learn something new like a dance routine or sport while their parents are deployed. They can talk about their progress with their deployed parent, and show off these new skills when their parent returns home.
Stay busy with children and youth by starting a new family activity or routine. A regular play date with friends or relatives can give children something to look forward to and keep their mind off their parent’s absence. And creating new traditions, like family game nights or weekend outings, can strengthen family bonds and distract children from missing activities with their deployed parent.
For age-appropriate physical activities, stress reduction, and menu ideas, check out the Thrive online program parent resources. Thrive is a collaborative effort between the Department of Defense and the Clearinghouse for Military and Family Readiness at Penn State. The free, online program offers evidence-based strategies for nurturing healthy children ages 0-18.
Use support systems and programs to keep kids involved
People in military support programs understand the challenges families face during a deployment. A reliable support system also lets you connect with other families and children going through the same thing.
Your installation Military and Family Support Center can help you connect with:
Children of active-duty, National Guard and Reserve service members who don’t live near installations may also feel isolated if none of their friends are from military families. The following resources can help children who live off-installation stay connected and supported.
Keep other adults in the loop
Make sure to alert and stay connected with important adults in your children’s life during deployment. Teachers, counselors, coaches, school administrators, religious leaders, family and friends can help parents learn about any behavior changes outside the home. Other adults can also be a vital source of support for both parents and children.
Make timelines easy to understand
Children may be especially focused on how much time a deployed parent will be away. Explain the deployment timeline in a way that they’ll understand. Try turning it into an activity — like making a calendar or building a paper chain day-by-day — to keep children motivated and excited about the upcoming reunion. However, it’s important to set realistic expectations and be prepared for deployment extensions.
Reach out if you need help
Whether you live on-base or off, in the U.S. or overseas, the military community is available to help you manage deployment challenges. Military OneSource consultants are available 24/7/365 to answer questions and connect you to the resources and services you and your family need to live your best MilLife. Call 800-342-9647, call OCONUS, or schedule a live chat.