When a Parent Goes to War

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All kids — no matter their age — want and need their parents to protect and care for them. And all parents want to be able to tell their kids that mommy and daddy will always be close by.

But when a parent is deployed to war, that comforting balance is disrupted. Some parents have to leave their families for long stretches of time. Some will be in harm's way. And despite the pride our men and women in the armed services feel in serving their country — and the knowledge that they are well trained to do so — military families can't help but worry how their kids will manage in a parent's absence.

How kids handle separation and what they need from the adults who care for them while a parent is away will vary somewhat. But all kids do react in some ways, and the adults around them need to be prepared. Parents can help smooth the transition before and after deployment, and foster the resiliency kids need to cope well in between.

Before Deployment

There's no easy way to tell a child that a parent has to go away. Yet once a deployment date is set, it's important to give kids some advance notice, especially if a parent's deployment will involve big changes like a move or a new primary caregiver.

Here are some tips to consider:

Be honest. The words you use are important and can mean different things depending on a child's age and maturity, so give kids the truth in terms they can understand. For example, for young children, the concept of a long separation is a lot harder to grasp than the fact that mommy won't be there to take them to school in the mornings or that daddy won't be back until after Christmas. They often do better with visual reminders, such as a calendar with dates checked off to mark the passage of time. Older kids, on the other hand, especially those who watch the news, may react with a greater sense of worry and fear. Reassure them that people in the military are trained to do their jobs and every effort will be made to ensure safety.

Let kids know that they will be taken care of. Kids need to feel protected in a parent's absence, so tell them who will be taking care of them during the time away. Young children, especially, may have questions about their daily routine. Be patient if they ask the same questions over and over — repeated reassurances will help them feel more secure. Asking the questions over and over simply means that the child has not fully absorbed and accepted the information on emotional and intellectual levels.

Make a plan to stay connected. Let kids know that goodbyes are hard for everyone — even grown-ups. Remind them that they'll be thought of and loved while the parent is away, and talk about the people who will be there to help them feel better when they're feeling sad. Invite your child to come up with ideas to stay connected — from sending emails to promising to think about each other at the same time every day.

Try not to overburden. Kids are very attuned to the feelings of their parents, so be aware of any tension and anxiety they might be picking up on at home. Also, avoid instructing your child to be the man or woman of the house while one parent is away. Kids need to be kids, even in tough times, so instead tell them to do the very best they can even though it might be hard.

Spend extra time together. In the days and weeks prior to departure, many military parents feel pressure to get the house in order by tackling their overloaded to-do lists. Though fixing leaky faucets and taking the car for a tune-up are certainly important, remember that it's just as necessary to work in plenty of one-on-one time with each child. The photos, videos, and special mementos of these times are what your family will hold on to until everyone is together again.

During Deployment

When a parent finally leaves, family life does change and it can take a little while for things to fall back into place. Kids are particularly vulnerable at this time, but parents and caregivers can help them through it.

Here are some ideas:

Keep a routine. Help offset feelings of uncertainty by keeping life at home as predictable as possible. In the face of big changes, even small things that stay the same — like a simple bedtime routine or a fun Saturday morning ritual — can be extremely reassuring.

Keep the absent parent a part of children's lives. Whether it's looking at pictures and videos, saying a special prayer, counting down days on a calendar, finding where mommy or daddy is on a map, making a scrapbook, or organizing an activity your loved one would like, encourage your kids to find creative ways to stay connected to the parent who's away.

Talk often and listen well. Even the most attentive kids can misinterpret information, so ask your children what they've heard and then help them correct misconceptions and put things in perspective. Talk to them about the things that upset them and let them know it's OK to feel worried sometimes. Simply listening — and letting your kids know that you understand — is tremendously comforting. Encourage older kids to keep a journal to help work through their feelings.

Get support. A parent's departure is not only unsettling for the kids, but also overwhelming for the partner who must absorb all the extra duties. The armed forces have many programs to help families get through the difficult times. Take advantage of them, as well as any offers of support from relatives, friends, or other military families who know what you're going through — especially if you're feeling depleted and are finding it hard to supply the positive interaction your kids need.

Returning Home

When it's time for the homecoming — that joyous day you've all been waiting for — you expect the hugs, excitement, and happy tears. But the period of adjustment that often follows can catch many families by surprise. Though some returning servicemen and -women do slip back easily into the rhythm of home life, most families need a little time to find their balance.

Here are some ideas for making the transition easier:

Communicate. A lot can change when one partner has been away: not only are the kids older, perhaps with new interests and routines, but the remaining parent may also be more self-reliant. It's no wonder that many returning parents have a hard time figuring out where they fit into the plan. As with any transition, open, honest communication is key to re-establishing a routine that works for everyone.

Give it time. Forget any expectations about how quickly things need to go back to "normal." Just because it takes your family some time to readjust doesn't mean you love each other any less or that you won't get back to where you were before — or even someplace better. Be patient as you get to know each other again, and give the whole family plenty of opportunities to rediscover each other.

Take the pressure off. If the first few days and weeks of being together as a family aren't exactly the fairy tale you had in mind, try not to be discouraged. Putting pressure on yourself or your family to act or feel a certain way will only make things harder. Keep a sense of humor and let the process unfold naturally.

Every Child Is Different

No two kids will react to a parent's deployment in exactly the same way. Even within the same family, some kids are naturally even-keeled and resilient, while others are much more sensitive. Some voice their concerns out loud; others worry in silence.

A child who's feeling anxiety may show it in a number of subtle ways. Babies and toddlers may become withdrawn or clingy. Preschoolers may regress in their behaviors or experience a resurfacing of old fears. Older kids and teens — even those who appear to take things in stride — may also have a tough time, experiencing decreased appetite, withdrawal from activities, sleep problems and nightmares, restlessness, stomachaches, aggression, anger, sadness, and difficulty at school.

If your child experiences any of these issues, avoid punishing, scolding, or shaming. Children may simply be making sure there is still someone ready to take care of them. Or they may be struggling with feelings they haven't verbalized. Plenty of reassurance and understanding — as well as calm but clear statements about what behaviors are out of bounds — is your best bet for getting your child back on track.

Try not to take it personally if your child expresses anger toward either the absent or remaining parent. Though hard to hear, some temporary anger is normal when something happens that kids don't want and can't control. Help your kids express their strongest feelings in words (keeping a journal is a great way to do this), and continue to set limits on unacceptable ways to express anger. Tell them when you're feeling proud of their bravery, helpfulness, and other efforts.

Deployment is not an easy time for a family. Whether you're the parent who's away or the one at home, your kids will need your love and encouragement more than ever. Some days will be harder than others, but you can get through it — especially with the help of others.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: November 2010



Related Resources

OrganizationAmerican Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) AACAP offers up-to-date information on child and adolescent development and issues.
OrganizationAmerican Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.
OrganizationAmerican Psychological Association (APA) The APA provides information and education about a variety of mental health issues for people of all ages.
OrganizationAmerican Academy of Family Physicians This site, operated by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), provides information on family physicians and health care, a directory of family physicians, and resources on health conditions.


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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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