Family Separation and Readiness --- Children's Issues
Parents can help children understand and accept the separation.
The pre-family separation period is stressful for parents and children.
Confronted with an extended absence of a parent, family members sense a loss of
continuity and security. Children may not fully understand why one of their
parents must leave. Very often young children may become confused and fearful
that Mommy or Daddy will desert them.
Change is puzzling to children. They want everything to remain the same.
Children are not very good at expressing fears and feelings in words. Anger and
a desire for revenge, as well as guilt for feeling that way, are often
demonstrated in the child's behavior. When changes occur, children usually have
no other way to release anxieties, and nowhere to go for help. At a time when
the spouse readies to deploy, the remaining spouse may feel overwhelmed, as he
or she prepares to solely support the children and home.
What can be done about relieving the stress of the pre-family separation period?
Consider the following ideas, which have been helpful to others in similar
Talk to Your Children About the Deployment Before It Happens
Communicate your thoughts and feelings about the separation. Be open and honest.
Some parents worry that advance warning will only give the child more time to
fret. However, children can sense when something is about to happen and worry
more when they are left uninformed. Knowing about the deployment in advance
helps family members adjust to the idea.
Building an Emotional Bond
The departing parent needs to spend quality time with each child before he or
she leaves. Do not be afraid to hug your child. A display of affection is a
Use this time to share pride in your work and the purpose for your deployment.
Many school-age children understand that some events must happen for the good of
everyone. It is a little easier to let go if mom or dad's job is seen as
essential to the country.
Often when asked if something is bothering them, a child will say "no". But
there are ways to get through. Make a casual reference to your own worries or
ambivalent feelings about the impending assignment or deployment.
This helps a child realize that his or her parent is a real person who can cry
as well as laugh, and it models an appropriate way to release feelings—talk
Visit Your Child's Teacher
Children frequently react to the deployment of a parent by misbehaving in class
or performing poorly in their studies. A teacher who is aware of the situation
is in a better position to be sensitive and encouraging.
Plan for Communicating
Expect children to stay in touch with the departed spouse. Encourage children to
brainstorm the many ways communication can occur in addition to letter writing.
Help Children to Plan for the Departure
When the spouse is packing his or her bags, allow the children to assist in some
way. Suggest a "swap" of some token, something of the child's that can be packed
in a duffel bag in return for something that belongs to the departing parent.
Discuss the household chores and let the children choose (as much as possible)
the ones they would rather do. Mother and father need to agree with each other
that the division of household chores is reasonable. The role of disciplinarian
needs to be supported by the departing parent.
Being a Long-Distance Parent
Parenting while away from home is not easy. The most important aspect of
parenting from a distance is making those small efforts to stay in touch. Doing
something to say the parent is thinking about and missing the child is what is
most important. The following are some practical suggestions to help keep the
absentee parent involved with his or her children:
- Letters and cards from mom or dad are important. The length and contents are
not nearly as important as the presence of something in the mail from the absent
parent. When sending picture postcards, make little notes about the place or
write that you stood right "here"—"x" in the picture. Any small thing that makes
the card personal will have tremendous meaning to children at home.
- When using a tape recorder, remember to be creative: sing "Happy Birthday," tell
a story, read inspirational material, or take it with you on your job or when
visiting with other members of your working group. Do not try to fill a tape
completely in one sitting. Make sure you describe details such as your
surroundings, the time of day, and what you are doing.
- Try not to forget birthdays and special holidays that might be important to a
child, particularly Thanksgiving, religious holidays, Halloween, or Valentine's
- Try to schedule phone calls when children are likely to be at home. Keep a
mental list of things you want to talk about with each child, such as his or her
friends, school, and sports. Ask each child to send you something from the
activities they are involved in at school, home, or outside activities, such as
dance lessons, youth groups, or scouts. If your child has a pet, make sure to
ask about it.
- TURN ON YOUR SENSORS AND TUNE IN TO YOUR CHILD'S WORRIES ABOUT THE DEPLOYMENT.
Just because a child does not tell you about their concerns does not mean that
they are not troubled. Children do not usually recognize the cause, nor will
they tell you they are concerned. The spouse that is departing should
communicate with each child individually. There is no substitute for a letter
with your own name on the envelope. Again, send postcards, snapshots, and tape
recordings of the sounds around you where you are deployed. Let them know you
are thinking of and loving them.
This material is adapted from the "Predeployment Guide: A Tool for Coping" on
the Air Force Crossroads Web site.