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.
Consider the following ideas, which have been helpful to others in similar situations.
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.
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 powerful communication.
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 about them.
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.
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.
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.
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:
This material is adapted from the "Predeployment Guide: A Tool for Coping" on the Air Force Crossroads Web site.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
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