Talk Sooner Than Later
More than 2 million children in the U.S. have had parents deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in recent years, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University. No matter how old your children are, telling them about a parent's deployment is never easy. It might be tempting to hold off until you get closer to the departure date, but don't. "As soon as you have your orders and know the date you're being deployed and the living arrangements for your children, it's time to sit down and have an open and honest conversation around how the deployment will affect them," says Suzy Yehl Mara, founder and president of Rainbows for All Children (rainbows.org), the largest international children's charity helping kids navigate the grief process. It's best if both parents are a part of the conversation, and that you choose a place that is comfortable and free of distractions.
Be Honest But Age Appropriate
What you say to your children depends a great deal on their ages. "Toddlers don't understand the concept of time. They just know that Dad or Mom is away. Tell them you'll always love them and that they will be in the loving arms of the parent or grandparent at home," says Elaine G. Dumler, author of I'm Already Home...Again (Imalreadyhome.com). School-age children "are more scared of what they don't know than what they do, so be as honest with them as you can," Dumler says. "Honesty equals trust, and they need to feel secure in that. Use common sense when censoring information."
Describe what the deployed parent will do during this time in language young children can understand. "Younger children may not know the word deployment, but they can understand the idea that a dad or mom is going on a long trip for work. Parents can talk in general terms about where the service member is going, and even point it out on a map," says Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D., a psychologist with two kids; her Air Force husband has been deployed four times. As tempting as it might be, try not to promise that everything will be all right. "Be positive and reassuring. Say, 'Daddy's going to do his best to get back to us safe and sound and maybe even in time for [fill in the blank], a special event that is around the date of the expected return, like a birthday, holiday, or school play."
Use Simple Language
Avoid giving details that will frighten or confuse them. "Terms like war, fighting, etc., aren't helpful, especially since our operations are mostly nation-building and security operations at this stage," Dr. Luedtke says. Saying something like, "Daddy is going to help the people of Afghanistan by training new police officers" or "Daddy is going to help build roads, schools, and hospitals" can give them an idea of what the deployed parent will be doing. "Deployment can be dangerous, but kids may overreact if they are focused on bombs and bullets," Dr. Luedtke points out. Let these questions guide the conversation:
- Where will your family live?
- Will your family be moving to a new school or neighborhood?
- Will the remaining parent need to go back to work?
- Are there any other changes that need to be explained?
- Will your child have additional chores or responsibilities?
- How will you all stay in touch during this time?
Acknowledge and Limit Fears
It's natural that your children will be afraid, but it's impossible to take away all of their fears. "As the parent left at home, try your best to keep your concern and frustration away from the kids," says Candi Wingate, president of Nannies4Hire (nannies4hire.com). "When they see you afraid, it can undermine the confidence in their own strength." Listen intently to your child's expression of her fears, and be careful not to dismiss them, even if you're trying to make her feel better.
"Ask probing questions about what they think and feel about what is happening," Wingate says. "Be accepting of whatever they share. Remind your kids that they can always come to you no matter what." Don't add to your children's fears with unnecessary news stories. "Limit kids' access to news images if they seem to be overly anxious about a parent's safety," Dr. Luedtke says. "Talk about what is happening 'over there' in general terms." And avoid exposing your children to fear-reinforcing activities such as watching blood-and-guts war movies or playing violent video games.