Military deployment: Help child cope

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MANHATTAN, Kan. – Heart-wrenching photographs of military families parting are in the news. The pictorial reports are only one part of what American families currently are experiencing, said Chuck Smith, family life specialist.

Deployment can stress personal relationships, living arrangements, family and business economics, work relationships – even community services.

The list could go on and on, Smith said.

Emotional. “When one or more members of a military family is preparing for deployment, there are emotional issues as well as the practical decisions needed to manage day-to-day living apart successfully,” Smith said.

In tackling emotional issues for parents with children, Smith said that children usually feel sad when a parent must be away.

“A child’s age will affect how he or she is likely to respond. Infants can, for example, sense a parent’s absence; toddlers can feel distress, even if they are not able to verbalize it,” he said.

Young fears. Children might fear that a parent may not return or that the parent will in some way be different when he or she does return.

“Signs of a child’s distress may include sleep disturbances; changes in eating habits; or acting out. At times, a child may panic,” he said.

Prior feelings. The nature of parent-child relationship prior to deployment also can influence how a child responds to the separation. A parent who has spent quality time with a child will be missed more than an emotionally distant parent.

Parents who are an important part of a child’s daily schedule – those who read a story at night or fix breakfast every morning – will be painfully missed.

Taking steps. Parents can, however, take steps to reassure their children, Smith said, who offered these tips:

* Talk to your children. Tell them that your work assignment requires you to be away. At the same time, remind them that being away won’t change your feelings for them.

“It’s best for children to hear family news from their parents,” Smith said.

* Try not to alarm children unnecessarily or burden them with details they may not understand.

* Acknowledge concern. “It’s OK for a parent to say ‘we’ll miss …,’ but try not to dwell on the absence,” he said.

* Get a map and pinpoint where the absent parent will be.

* Reassure your children and family – tell them you look forward to coming home and seeing them.

* Spend time with your children. Turn off the television, get out the board games, play catch, go for a bike ride, fix dinner together and take time to eat together as a family.

* Plan how you can keep in touch.

“Technology can speed communication during a separation. Check the availability of e-mail and opportunities to send tapes and videos,” Smith said.

Let family members know that letters, drawings or other school papers or activity reports will be appreciated.

Consistent communication can ease the pain of separation. It also can ease readjustments when the family is reunited, Smith said.

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