Navigating Military Deployments with Children: Interactive Ideas to Share the Time and Experience as a Family
Deployments are a challenge. Deployments as a family have added complexities. Often, it initially seems that the nature of extended military separations and a child’s capacity to understand based on their developmental stage is at odds. I have worked with many parents who struggle to find ways to explain the concepts to their children, particularly:
- Why Daddy won’t be home for a long time?
- Where Mommy is going to be if she’s not at home?
- What does 4 months mean to a pre-school child?
- How are we going to pass this time meaningfully?
In my work with military families, not only have I heard the questions, but I have also witnessed incredible creativity aimed at bridging connection during times of physical absence. Here are a few ideas to aid in addressing these common challenges:
- The Deployment Wall
- Dedicate a space in your home as a deployment wall. An interactive wall could include a map showing the family’s location and the deployed service member’s location; two clocks that display each respective time zone; a calendar to mark off days or paper chain with similar purpose; an attached folder to serve as a mailbox where family members can place artwork and letters to be mailed out to their parent. Let your creativity lead as you explore what would be meaningful for your family in this corner of your home.
- Incorporate Traditions from the Deployed Parent’s Current Region/Country
- Help your child dive into learning about the world and other cultures; this can even begin before the deployment. The military provides exposure to other ways of living, and even the home-front family can utilize the opportunity to broaden their world experience. Some families have spent time learning key phrases in the language of the deployed nation; practiced cooking at least one traditional meal for each deployed month; or sought out media set in that location (movies, shows, documentaries, books).
- Shared Play Time with Younger Children
- Younger children engage others through play and will naturally struggle to connect with conversation alone on a video call, much less on a telephone call. Finding ways to play together as a family, despite the distance can create meaningful interactions during a deployment or extended training rotation. Families have sent the military parent off with a couple extra Hot Wheels, a spare stuffed animal, or set of Lego; allowing for play when connecting on a video call. Other options have included the parent taking a “Flat Stanley” approach and taking that special toy around on an adventure, taking pictures as they go to share back home. Another approach involves the sacredness of bed time stories together. Military families have shown great creativity here while leveraging technology. Deployed parents have recorded themselves reading books ahead of deployment; used a YouTube video of a current favorite story and watched it together on a call; found the online text to a story book and recorded themselves reading it on a Marco Polo video sent home; and even taken a video call as an opportunity to write and illustrate a story together that they may work on weekly.
- Marking Time in Concrete Ways
- It is true that younger children do not have a full grasp on how time passes and therefore sharing that a deployment is for 6 months is not initially helpful. However, younger children do anchor well to holidays and traditions. One idea is to pre-assemble a box for a care package for each month and have them lined up in the garage to serve as a visual reminder. A family I worked with in the past, pre-labeled each box with the holiday/milestone that box’s month corresponds with in order to help the child mark time (i.e. the Halloween box, the Thanksgiving box, the Christmas box, Dad’s birthday box, the Valentine’s day box, etc).
- Introduce Children to the Language and Concepts
- Many families share a sentiment similar to: “Hayden is only 3, she doesn’t know what a deployment is so we will tell her that Mom is gone for work.” While this is likely true, your child does not yet know what a deployment is, you have the rich opportunity to teach them; just as you have for every other concept they have learned to date. It is important to give children language for the things they are experiencing, it helps provide a sense of safety and it helps children differentiate varying situations. For instance, if language like “work” or “a trip” is used to label a 9-month deployment, that child may become very concerned when adults talk about having to go to work (a typical one day shift) or on a trip (just for the weekend), imagining another long stretch without their caregiver. In addition to what you can share with your child, there are a number of great books for children that center on military life topics and Sesame Street has a collection of videos as well.
Deployments, yearlong rotations, and extended training duties are unique burdens on military families. Inherently, physical separation challenges connections between parents and children; however military families continue to demonstrate resilience and creativity in the face of these obstacles. As I have heard time and time again, a deployment is what you make of it. And there are numerous ways, beyond these ideas, to thoughtfully foster meaning and connection in the face of time apart.