The time before, during, and after deployment is often filled with anxiety and confusion. The number of family members of active duty military personnel is approximately 2 million, which includes spouses, children, and adult dependents. Coping with both the physical and emotional distance, while keeping family bonds intact, can feel challenging. But by keeping one another in their daily thoughts and rituals, family members can stay connected over space and time. Here are nine ways to maintain strong bonds while a family member is deployed.
The surge in technological advancement has given families multiple ways to connect. "Bringing a laptop and a phone that will work internationally are great ways to prepare, and researching what will work overseas (with the guidance of a nearby military base) is a good idea," says Elizabeth Ehrhardt, L.I.C.S.W., a clinical social worker with military families.
Valerie Clark, a licensed professional counselor and mother of two whose husband has been deployed several times, agrees: "The fact that we could Skype during the last deployment was a game-changer. It was something that we could look forward to. The kids could actually see their dad, see that he was okay, and talk to him." As exciting as technology is, though, it can also be unreliable and lead to disappointment and frustration when there is signal trouble or a deployed parent is unavailable. "When it was bad, there were lots of tears," Clark reveals. Always have a backup plan to do something fun together if, for reasons beyond anyone's control, the communication gets disrupted.
Make sure family time includes time for both parents to check in with one another and be on the same page. "Communication is key," says Kathleen Mulrooney, Senior Training and Consultation Specialist with military family projects at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that focuses on the health and development of infants and toddlers. "For families who have good communication and good planning -- before deployment and while a parent is away -- things are much less stressful." For Clark and her husband, issues included when to tell the kids he was leaving and how to manage the anxiety around departure dates, and how much television news to expose them to. If you make sure both parents are discussing family matters and handling them consistently, the bond will continue to stay strong.
Children thrive on routine. Keep the days structured to help anchor kids and plan events to get excited about. "If you don't have something to look forward to, it just makes the clock tick," Clark says. "I would plan things every week or two." Road trips, outings, and visiting friends were all on Clark's event calendar. Get together with other military families and have family slumber parties. Just make sure the schedule includes regular quality time together with the kids. "Be available on a regular basis to catch up on whatever is on their minds," Mulrooney advises. "Going for a walk together or just sitting on a blanket in the living room and having pizza or ice cream can be fun and different." Reading stories is another great way to connect. Books like Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst can give insight into a kid's emotional life and reassure them that it's okay to have feelings of sadness sometimes.
Spend time creating special tokens for one another before deployment. A parent can record a favorite bedtime story on a recordable children's book or on a digital recorder, video camera, or other device. "For some kids I've worked with," says Ehrhardt, "saying good night to Daddy and pressing the button to hear his voice was part of the bedtime routine." Recordable picture frames are also excellent options because messages like "I love you" or "I miss you" can accompany a favorite photograph.
Or trace a parent's hand and make it into a magnet on the fridge so a child can high-five it whenever something positive happens, Mulrooney suggests. Transitional objects such as picture quilts and laminated wallet-size photos can also be easily transported wherever a parent or child goes, she says. Even a pillow case or blanket that Daddy or Mommy used to sleep on can create a sensory connection. The smell, the sound of a familiar voice, or a recognizable smile can create a comforting sense of a loved one.
Allow kids to be part of the process by writing letters, taking pictures, or shopping together for items to put into the care package. Clark hosted a party where guests brought donations for service members. "People came with toiletries, books, batteries, hard candies, and things that the troops need -- and my kids got to be a part of that, packing up the gifts and sending them out," she says.
Involving kids and letting them put their personal stamp on what goes in the package "are ways of bringing the changes to the parent and keeping the parent involved in the life of the child," Mulrooney explains. Include a plaster of Paris handprint, she suggests, so the child can show how she's grown. Or chronicle Halloween costumes, trips, outings or other special events in a customized photo album. Include journal entries, poems, artwork, or other tokens to encourage close feelings and keep the deployed parent updated on the child's development. Preparing care packages creates quality time for the remaining parent and kids.
When a parent first returns from deployment, take time to reconnect as an immediate family. Save larger social gatherings for later, Ehrhardt advises. "Often when people are coming back from deployment, everyone wants to see them and it can be overwhelming. So don't have a party the very first night she's back." Post-deployment can also bring challenges. "It can be hard coming back," she explains, "because the service members may not feel needed -- and they don't know where they fit in." Kids also need time to adjust when a parent returns, Mulrooney says.
"For older kids, changing roles can cause a challenge. One parent has been playing the role of both mom and dad. The child is trying to figure out, 'where do I fit in all of this?' They might be testing who's in charge." In addition, when a deployed parent returns, there may be concerns about whether their kids, particularly if they're young, will know or remember them. "We know that nearly 50 percent of military children are under the age of five. Some are able to reconnect very quickly and make those transitions. Others are a little shy and might even be frightened," Mulrooney says. Creating quiet time to allow family members to re-acclimate to one another can foster a smoother transition and facilitate bonding.
"When your spouse is gone, people need to remember it's okay to ask for help," Clark advises. "Be proactive. Not everyone knows, but when you tell people 'this is what I need,' they help." Those needs may include finding child care, juggling chores, or getting emotional support. Make sure to voice any concerns or difficult feelings. Clark made it a point to reach out to other military spouses, often having them over for dinner. "When there are other people around that are going through a similar situation, it's nice to have the camaraderie."
The military has a liaison officer that helps families, and a network exists for counseling and support groups and for car, lawn, or money maintenance. The Department of Defense offers free resources (www.militaryonesource.com) for service members and their families. Community therapists can be reached 24 hours a day and board books like Daddy, You're My Hero! by Michelle Ferguson-Cohen or Over There (Mommy Version) by Dorinda Silver Williams address deployment from a child's perspective and speak to issues children may be facing. Activity packets that assist spouses on coping with the stress of separation are also available.
The parent who remains home is, in many ways, doing the job of a single parent. It's impossible to be available and supportive of everyone else unless you take time to replenish. "Make sure that the parent who's at home is staying connected with other friends, families, and peers," Mulrooney says. Social support is important, as is time alone, she explains: "Do something special just for you." Engage in simple activities like flipping through a magazine, going for a walk, or seeing a movie with friends. "Exercise was my personal freedom," Clark reveals. Set aside personal time in your busy schedule to restore your energy.
When holidays, birthdays, and other meaningful family events roll around, continue rituals or celebrations that have always been important to the family while integrating new ones. "Maintaining routine and familiar rituals can be something that anchors us and keeps us steady during difficult times," Mulrooney explains. At the same time, make connections to where you are. If your family had to relocate to a different environment, find decorations that speak to the new location or climate. Celebrate with people you've met in the new community -- whether through a military base, friends from your neighborhood, or your religious community. Even if your kids resist changes, work to keep everyone close.
Corinne Schuman is a mother and licensed mental health counselor in Washington, DC.
Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.