Helping Military Kids Get Through Multiple Deployments
As a mom of four young adults whose whole childhoods were spent as military kids, a friend once remarked that our family could be its own case study for experiencing multiple deployments…and it’s true.
And while we developed coping skills according to how each child reacted to a particular deployment, depending on their age and other factors, I fully realize that each military family is different and will deal with the repeated separations, fears, anxieties, and homecomings in their own way.
At any given time, 225,000 military children have a parent deployed. Add to that the repeated stress of having a primary caregiver absent, and not just "away" but often in a dangerous situation, the toll taken on the remaining parent and family, the impact of reintegration as the deployed parent returns, and it’s easy to see the strain placed on our military kids.
My goal here is not to give you answers that may or may not work for your specific situation, but to point you to some helpful resources. I’ve also polled some other military families for their input, so I hope to at least help your family realize they’re not alone as they say goodbye once again, and to provide you some help that you may not be aware is available.
Tip #1: Connect with other families and military children going through deployment.
While stationed in Germany, our base hosted a monthly “Buddy Program.” Elementary-aged children were matched with a high school teen, and the common factor was they each had a parent deployed. The base spouses’ group provided oversight, lunch, and a game or outing like bowling. The goal was to offer a supportive environment, time to talk, and for the younger kids to realize they could get through it. I daresay the high schoolers came away with the same lesson. Even if you don't have something similar at your installation, there are other ways to connect military kids with their peers.
Here are some additional resources for finding others going through a similar situation.
Chameleon Kids offers a monthly magazine just for military children, along with other helpful resources and ways to connect on social media.
Military Kids Connect from Military OneSource is an interactive program for kids, tweens, and teens as well as resources for parents. Kids can hear stories from peers going through the same thing through various media, learn more about the location where their parent is stationed, and even play games. Get an overview of what MKC offers in this helpful post.
Operation Purple Camps. Sponsored by the National Military Family Association, these FREE one-week camps are designed just for military kids. With trained counselors on hand who are well-versed in coping skills for military life, your child could make connections to last a lifetime.
Tip #2: Utilize supportive organizations.
Your local community. As mentioned above, many military installations will offer help, resources, and even free childcare to support the deployed family. Check with your Family Support Center (or whatever it’s called for your branch) to get specifics.
Some other amazing companies whose sole function is to support deployed children:
The Comfort Crew for Military Kids has impacted 100,000 children in the past two years through live events, DVDs, deployment and reintegration kits for military kids, and much more--free of charge. Through a unique blend of humor and real talk, the Comfort Crew’s mission of supporting military kids is amazing.
Sweet Dreams Pillow Project USA. Your child can receive his or her own pillow with a photo of the deployed parent. This “small oval-shaped pillow featuring a picture of a child's Mom or Dad in uniform that they can hug and hold no matter how far away they may be in the world defending freedom” is offered free from this organization.
There are so many resources dedicated to our military kids. See this list of resources from Military OneSource for others.
Tip #3: Consider these ideas from other military parents.
Other military families often have experiences and ideas we wouldn’t have considered or realized were available. Here are a few from some of our military blogger friends:
Keep Lines of Communication Open
"My two ways of keeping communication open with my daughter are our nightly dog walks and traveling together. She opens up a lot better during our walks about her day and other things on her mind. We always chat about what the 'bad kids' did in class that day. I know that sounds mean, but it’s humorous and I try to teach her how to work with 'difficult' people. I even gave her the sex talk on one of our walks!
We do a lot of trips together, because it’s fun, she thinks it’s special, and we have a lot of time to talk about whatever. If it’s an overnight, a trip into the city, or an airplane ride to see family, we do it all. We consider traveling our private school education since we can't afford the real thing, so its super important that she keep seeing the world as a big picture type framework." -Dawn Smith, MilitaryByOwner Blogger
Photos and Videos
"In order to help my son through my husband's deployments, I made him a photo book on Shutterfly of all pics of him and his dad together. We looked at it every night and talked about the memories linked to the picture. We took pics to send to my husband of everything and anything we did. He loved knowing that his dad would still get to see everything that happened while he was gone.
And, as silly as it sounds, I'd let him send his dad stickers on Facebook Messenger to see when he logged back on. He loved being able to pick out funny stickers and type garbled messages in 2-year-old speak that his dad would get to see relatively soon. - Kathleen Hunter, [Relatively] Normal
Connect and Provide a Sense of Stability
“United Through Reading. It was AMAZING for my kiddos. My husband recorded four books in 2006 for our oldest, and we used them until 2013 or so. All three kiddos watched them. Not only did this help with recognizing their dad via his looks and voice, but it gave me a few minutes of peace. Also, you can do this before you leave! You can keep the book and their [parent] can be in 'normal' clothes.
For those with better access to internet, purchase two books and let the parent actually read to them over Skype or FaceTime!” -Jennifer Nguyen
"I sent a quick email to my daughter’s teacher to let him know our situation and asked he keep an eye on her. He was more than willing. One reason I think my daughter is confident with our life is because I am visible so much. I am regularly a room parent, which she adores, and I am at the school a good bit. I really think all of the school/after school involvement and knowing she can depend on me is crucial to any departure adjustments."
Multiple Deployments and Multiple Ideas
“We have four kids, and we recently finished our 6th deployment. We use Daddy dolls, Daddy quilts, and prerecorded bears or books. They earn their allowance in dimes and save it in a big jar for post-deployment vacation.
My school-aged kids have done Operation Hero for after-school help with homework. We have talked to a Military Family Life Counselor and even a professional counselor (covered by Tricare) for serious behavior issues. My best strategies are to stay active and organized, keep a routine, take care of my own health, and let them help make meals.” -Lizann Lightfoot, The Seasoned Spouse
Strategies for Deploying Moms
"I deployed away from my firstborn son when he was 9 months old. My husband was also dealing with TDYs at the time. We had grandparents move in to care for our son, and my husband set up dedicated IP cameras over his crib and play area. He was too young to understand what was happening, but the cameras really helped me deal with the trauma of having to leave such a small baby (he was still nursing until the time I left, and I missed all the firsts: steps, words, birthday, etc.). I could log on and see that he was playing happily or sleeping for the night. Made me feel a little closer to him. I also recorded a Hallmark recordable story book for him (Goodnight Moon), and tried to talk to him on Skype as often as possible.
I will say that there isn't much support built into the military structure for active duty moms (at least there wasn't when I got out in 2012); the support is structured around 'Dad deploys and Mom is home.' The reality is that moms are also gone (or both parents deployed). So few people in the mil-spouse community realize how common it is.
I got out of the military, and now we only have one deployment schedule to deal with. We cope with lots of Skype, 'Open when...' letters, and speaking openly with our kids about their worries. It still never gets easier." -MJ Rutell
I would agree that it doesn’t necessarily get easier; in all honesty, it may actually feel more difficult with each deployment because you now know exactly the challenges you’ll be facing.
But I also have hope. Back when 9/11 changed the landscape of our nation and our military community, many military families—including mine—were left scrambling with how to help our children deal with this new normal. While most military families these days can’t remember a time we weren’t at war, and it seems the civilian community can’t completely comprehend the toll it takes on our families, the number of non-profits and helping agencies that have sprung up in response is incredibly encouraging to me. And while it looks like regular deployments won't be ending anytime soon, the greater military family stands ready to help military kids manage these separations.
As you help your military child deal with yet another deployment, my greatest hope is that you realize you’re not alone and there IS support available for you and your children.