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How to Explain Deployment to Your Kids

returning soldier hugging her son

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.

Don't Make Too Many Promises

If a deployed parent is leading the conversation, remind your children why you joined the military in the first place and the importance of protecting America and people in other countries. "Explain that you have been trained well to do the job you will be doing, and that everything possible is being done to ensure that you will be safe and able to return home happy and healthy," Yehl Mara says.

Make it clear that while you're going to do your best to communicate regularly -- through letters, emails, or Skype -- there will be times when you might be unavailable. Yehl Marta also advises against promising your child that life won't change during the deployment period. While you'll do your best to keep up with the current routine, some changes and adjustments -- like the possibility of moving -- can happen. It's better to prepare your kids now than later.

Watch for Changes

Observe your kids for signs of stress, fear, depression, or anxiety. "When you see these signs, address them directly. Ask your kids how they're feeling. Let them have a safe place to share what they're experiencing. Brainstorm with your kids on joining military family support groups, speaking with a counselor, etc.," Wingate suggests. Expect the transition to be difficult, especially initially. "Kids of all ages will struggle to adapt to parental deployment. They may act out. Some grade-school-age children may revert to bedwetting; teens may exhibit anger or withdrawal. Manifestations of transition struggles can be expected, so be calm, patient, and reassuring," Wingate says.

Get Others Involved

Inform your child's teachers, coaches, day-care workers, babysitters, and other parents about the deployment so they can help support your child and watch out for any changes in behavior. If your child is older, he may have friends who have questions about the deployment. "Help your child feel proud about the deployed parent so he can respond proudly to kids at school, especially those who might challenge or 'question' the deployment," Dumler says. "Not everyone is supportive of the war [in the Middle East], so it's important to understand the impact that damaging words can have on your child. Talk with him about insensitive remarks others could make so he can put the remarks in perspective." Consider putting your child in touch with another family that has experienced deployment. Sometimes it's easier for kids to talk to each other about their feelings than with their parents.

Return to the Discussion

Don't have just a one-time conversation. Your children may not have any questions during the initial sit-down (they might be too shocked or scared to think of anything), so real talking may not happen until after they've had time to think about the deployment. Older kids might want to be left alone for a while to deal with their feelings. Don't push or try to force a conversation right away. "Let them know you'll be there if they need you," Dumler says. But remember that there's more going on in your kids' lives than just deployment, so make time to talk about topics like school, sports, and friends. The lines of communication should stay open, so schedule weekly family meetings.

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.