Helping Military Kids Get Through Multiple Deployments of a Parent
As a mom of four young adults whose childhoods were spent as military kids, a friend once remarked that our family could be its own case study for experiencing multiple deployments of a parent… 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.
Studies show that over 2 million children have experienced the wartime deployment of a parent in the past decade, many of them going through repeated deployments of a parent (Source: Verywell Family). Add to that the repeated stress of having a primary caregiver absent—and not just away but often in a dangerous situation or in an area with little contact, 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 to point you to some helpful resources to utilize for your own family. I’ve also polled some other military families for their input, and we all hope it helps your family realize you're not alone as they say goodbye once again, and to provide you with support that you may not be aware is available.
Tip #1: Connect with other families and military children going through deployment.
Image from Canva
While we were 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 (or you may be inspired to start a group of your own!).
Some additional resources for connecting your kids with other military children:
From Military OneSource comes this 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.
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. Not close to an in-person Operation Purple Camp? They now offer Operation Purple Camp at Home!
Image from Canva
Tip #2: Utilize supportive organizations.
Your Local Community
As mentioned above, many military installations will offer resources and even free childcare to support the deployed family. Check with the Military and Family Support Center on your base or post to get specifics.
Other amazing organizations that support deployed children:
A winner of the Presidential Service Award, Operation Teammate mission is to "provide a solution to the emotional strain on military children associated with family separations. By providing our sporting experiences through impactful athlete interaction, Operation Teammate helps to ease the pain associated with these extreme separations." Kids can attend events with college and professional sports organizations and become honorary "teammates for a day."
Sponsored by the Armed Services YMCA, Operation Kid Comfort is available to servicemember families of ranks E5 and below. Operation Kid Comfort provides quilts and pillowcases to military children of deployed active duty military members. Volunteers create hand-crafted, custom photo-transfer quilts and pillowcases to children of deployed military, in hopes of easing their stress and providing tangible comfort.
There are so many more resources dedicated to our military kids. See this list from Operation We Are Here for more ideas.
Image from Shutterstock
Tip #3: Try 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 it's super important that she keeps seeing the world as a big picture type framework." -Dawn M. 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 pictures 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
Connect and Provide a Sense of Stability
“United Through Reading. It was AMAZING for my kiddos. My husband recorded four books, and all of our 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
Communicate with Teachers
"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." -Dawn M. Smith
“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 help 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." -MJ Rutell
Personally, I don't think deployments get easier in some ways, no matter how many you go through. In fact, 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 of repeated deployments. While most military families these days don't remember that era, the number of non-profits and helping agencies that sprung up over the years in response is incredibly encouraging . Along with that, the greater military family stands ready to help military kids manage these separations.
If you're helping 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 your family.