Many parents wonder how to best prepare their children for military deployment, and how to sustain the well being of the family when their deployed loved one is away. Research suggests that deployments can be overwhelming for military families, and lead to problems with anxiety and depression in parents, spouses, and children1,2. However, there are also several strategies that can help lessen this stress, and ensure the family continues to thrive in the midst of the uncertainty and change a deployment brings.
We highlight some strategies for self-care, communication, and maintaining family routines that can boost your family’s resilience and mental health3.
As a parent or caregiver, try to build in time for self-reflection
Research suggests that parents with stronger self-reflection skills are more receptive to children’s emotional needs especially during times of heightened stress, like deployments4, 5. You may want to try practicing mindfulness, journaling, or any form of contemplative practice that helps you be aware of your own thoughts, feelings, and emotional needs. This foundation of self-awareness will prepare you to be an engaged and present parent to your child, and boost your own mental health, which will in turn boost that of your child6.
Create an environment of open, honest communication about the deployment and your child’s emotional reactions to it
When you talk about the deployment, as well as the level of detail you share, will depend on the child’s developmental stage. However, across developmental stages, it is important to create an environment in which children and family members can speak openly about a range of topics related to the deployment, including painful emotions like fear and sadness7. Here are some of key messages you will want to deliver and repeat when discussing the deployment with your children:
- Make it less abstract. Share as much practical information as honestly as you can with your children about the deployment. You may consider putting up a map and showing the children where the unit is deploying to, and helping them learn about that area. You may also want to discuss the types of jobs the service member will complete and their daily routine in developmentally appropriate ways.
- Make a “coping” plan for the child. You may want to talk with the child about things they can do to feel better when they feel sad or scared during the deployment, or are missing their loved one. This could involve looking at pictures, writing a letter, or listening to an audio or video recording of the deployed spouse. This could also be integrated into a daily routine at bedtime, after-school, or in the morning.
- Emphasize actions to stay safe while deployed. Children most likely will understand there is an element of danger to the deployment. It is important to acknowledge this, and to emphasize that the service member and unit will do everything possible to stay safe. Emphasize that all the hard work and training in the military thus far has prepared the unit for this job.
- If there are siblings, encourage them to talk with one another about their feelings about the deployment. Research suggests that siblings can be especially important supports for one another during deployments8. Encourage your children to support one another and speak openly about their feelings. If your child does not have siblings, try connecting them to other military children. You may check out: http://ourmilitarykids.org.
- Talk about the deployed spouse frequently. Talking about the deployed parent or caregiver will help keep that person present in the daily life of the child. You may want to cook the favorite meal of the deployed spouse, or read a book they love together. You can also share often how much the deployed spouse misses the child, and how they love them.
Maintain a flexible routine as best you can
Household routines and responsibilities will shift during a deployment. Try as best you can to anticipate ways in which routines will need to change and explain this to your children. Taking time pre-deployment to recognize practical things that will change may help some children cope better and feel less overwhelmed. It may be helpful to communicate that while the service member is making sacrifices, the family on the home front is as well, with each person making a sacrifice in their own way.
- Schedule pleasurable family events more often. Given all the stress of a deployment, it is more important than ever to schedule fun, stress-relieving activities for the family to enjoy together. They can be small activities, such as a family bike-ride, cooking a meal together, watching a favorite show, reading a book aloud, or doing arts and crafts, or something larger like a trip to the movies or to a museum. Every family is working with different resources, and financial and time constraints can be a barrier to scheduling these sorts of activities. Try to find ways that fit with your schedule and resources, and involve your children with the planning of it.
Limit media exposure
Try as best you can to avoid watching media content that involves military action, or news of war zone activity with your children. It may be helpful to emphasize that the news you will share about the deployment will come directly from the deployed spouse, or the family readiness group officer. You can emphasize that this is a more accurate and direct depiction of what is going on with their parent/ caregiver than the media.
Deployments are so stressful; these strategies may help support your family during times of sacrifice and service.
1 – Walsh, F. (2003). Family resilience: A framework for clinical practice. Family Process, 42(1), 1-18. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2003.00001.x
2 – DeVoe, E. R., Paris, R., Emmert-Aronson, B., Ross, A., & Acker, M. (2016). A Randomized Clinical Trial of a Postdeployment Parenting Intervention for Service Members and Their Families With Very Young Children. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, And Policy, doi:10.1037/tra0000196
3 – DeVoe, E. R., Paris, R., & Acker, A. (2016). Prevention and intervention with military families of young children. In A. Gewirtz & S. MacDermid Wadsworth (Eds.), Military deployment, parenting and resilience (pp. 213–227). New York, NY: Springer. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3- 319-12556-5_12
4 – Chandra, A., Lara-Cinisomo, S., Jaycox, L. H., Tanielian, T., Burns, R. M., Ruder, T., & Han, B. (2010). Children on the homefront: The experience of children from military families. Pediatrics, 125(1), 16-25. doi:10.1542/peds.2009-1180
5 – Wilson, S. R., Chernichky, S. M., Wilkum, K., & Owlett, J. S. (2014). Do family communication patterns buffer children from difficulties associated with a parent’s military deployment? Examining deployed and at-home parents’ perspectives. Journal of Family Communication, 14(1), 32-52. doi:10.1080/15267431.2013.857325
6 – Houston, J. B., Pfefferbaum, B., Sherman, M. D., Melson, A. G., & Brand, M. W. (2013). Family communication across the military deployment experience: Child and spouse report of communication frequency and quality and associated emotions, behaviors, and reactions. Journal of Loss And Trauma, 18(2), 103-119. doi:10.1080/15325024.2012.684576
Paris, R., DeVoe, E. R., Ross, A. M., & Acker, M. L. (2010). When a parent goes to war: Effects of parental deployment on very young children and implications for intervention. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 80(4), 610-618. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.2010.01066.x
Sarah Krill Williston is a PhD Candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston, working in the Roemer lab. Her research centers on boosting mental health literacy and reducing stigma to encourage evidence-based care-seeking for anxiety and trauma-related disorders. Sarah specializes in offering evidence-based treatments like CBT and ABBT to individuals, particularly military families, active duty service members, and veterans with mood, anxiety, and trauma-related disorders.