Military families: supporting children during deployments

Deployment is part of military life. But getting assigned to serve overseas or elsewhere can majorly affect your family.

If you have children, you may be in for some challenging times as you adapt to life during deployment.

Here are some tips to make the transition easier for children of any age.

Develop a Support System Ahead of Time

Before deployment, familiarize yourself with support programs and resources available through your military branch and the larger community. Talking to other families who’ve been through deployment may give you a better idea of what to expect.

A support system of trusted friends, family, and professionals can help — whether you have an emergency or need a comforting shoulder.

Your support system may include:

  • Family members.
  • Friends.
  • Other military parents.
  • School counselors.
  • Therapists.
  • Teachers.
  • Coaches.
  • Community youth programs.
  • Your pediatrician.
  • Your faith community.

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Communicate Clearly With Your Child

Your child may have worries and fears when a parent leaves for deployment. It’s essential to address these fears, not ignore them. You can:

  • Talk to your child honestly about what’s happening in an age-appropriate way.
  • Ask them about their fears and listen to what they say. Never tell them their fears are silly.
  • Answer your child’s questions in simple, plain language. Keep details age-appropriate.
  • Focus on the positive. Talk to your child about how they’ll keep in touch with mom or dad while deployed — phone, send cards, text. Discuss your plans for when the parent returns home.

Expect New Behaviors When a Parent Gets Deployed

It’s normal for kids to feel upset during a parent’s deployment. Life may feel out of control due to the changes in family structure and routine. Their feelings can show up in behavioral changes and physical reactions.

Depending on their age, your child might:

  • Regress. Whenever there’s a big change in a child’s life, they may revert to old behaviors. Your child may be whiny, clingy, or start wetting the bed after months of being dry.
  • Be moody, irritable, or prone to tantrums. Don’t feel surprised if a minor incident causes a major meltdown. Children under stress often lose their ability to handle situations that would have been merely irritating before.
  • Feel confused. Younger children, who don’t have a good concept of time, might wonder why mom or dad isn’t around for mealtime or bedtime. Their routine gets thrown off by a parent being absent.
  • Feel anxious. School-age kids have a greater understanding of what deployment means. They may worry that mom or dad will get hurt or that they will never come back home.
  • Not feel well. Sometimes stress shows up physically, like stomachaches, headaches, or loss of appetite. Your child may want to sleep more or have trouble sleeping.
  • Act out. Your child may display unusually aggressive behavior at school or seem anxious or depressed. Their grades may slip.
  • Be angry. Teens especially may feel mad that one parent had to leave. They may feel unsure of their new role in the household, especially if they have to take on new responsibilities.

Explore the Ways You Can Support Your Child

Adjusting to deployment isn’t easy, but there are some steps you can take to make the transition less stressful for your child.

Take care of yourself first

It’s difficult to be a calming presence for your children if you’re falling apart. Make sure you get exercise, good sleep, and healthy food during this stressful time. Make time to talk to good friends about your concerns and see a therapist if needed.

Make sure family and caregivers are on the same page

If others are pitching in to help with childcare, communicate with them. Keep them in the loop about your child’s worries, concerns, and possible behavior issues.

Keep as many old routines as possible

Just because mom or dad isn’t around for bedtime doesn’t mean you skip the bedtime story. Routines make children feel secure and loved, especially during stressful times. Keep bedtimes, mealtimes, and play time consistent.

Limit the flow of bad news

Especially if your spouse gets deployed into an area of conflict, don’t keep cable news on all day. Hearing a constant stream of reports about bombings and war zones will only cause more anxiety. Likewise, monitor your child’s internet access to shield them from graphic images.

On the other hand, it’s okay to relay age-appropriate information to your child should something happen. Start by asking your child what they’ve heard about a situation. Then, share basic information, avoiding graphic details.

Keep kids busy

Children should continue to participate in activities they enjoy. If your child plays in a soccer league or goes to an after-school chess club, encourage them to continue. Being around friends and taking part in social activities is a good outlet and can give them a break from worry.

Create a new tradition

Starting a family game night or a weekend outing can give kids something to look forward to. New friends or activities can take their minds off missing their absent parent. Plus, it will give them something fun to share when the deployed parent returns home.

Keep the absent parent close

Encourage your child to write notes and draw pictures to send to the deployed parent. A memento like a photo, stuffed animal, or piece of clothing can help your child feel close. Putting together a care package for the absent parent gives a child a purposeful way to put their feelings into action.

Make a calendar

Depending on your child’s age, they will want to know how long mom or dad will be away. Crossing off days on a calendar (or taking links from a paper chain) can be a visual reminder. They’ll see the progress and get excited about the eventual reunion.

Don’t Hesitate to Reach Out for Help

Sometimes, you may feel overwhelmed and need help. You may benefit from family counseling if:

  • Your child’s behavioral changes seem extreme or go on for a long time.
  • Behavior problems are getting worse instead of better as the weeks go on.
  • Your child finds it difficult to separate from you.
  • Your child becomes obsessed with the safety of the deployed parent.
  • You think your teenager might get involved with risky behavior such as drinking, drug abuse, smoking, or sexual activity.

Deployments are stressful for everyone involved. Don’t be afraid to reach out for the help that you or your children might need.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Deployment Resources for Families, Link

American Academy of Pediatrics, Military Families: Child Care Support During Deployments, Link

American Academy of Pediatrics, Effects of Deployment on Children & Families, Link

U.S. Department of Defense, Supporting Children and Youth During Deployment, Link, Military Family Deployment 101, Link

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.