Military Kids and Deployments, by Age

How do military kids handle military deployments at different ages?

April is the month of the military child, and military kids often have to go through deployments. I have been writing about military kids a lot this month because, well, I have 4 of them! And they have all gone through several deployments, at different ages. Sometimes they are too young to remember. Other times they are old enough to act out and have a deployment affect the rest of their life. And so, parents worry. Is my military kid prepared for deployment? How will my child adjust to deployment? Will my child still be able to reconnect with their deployed parent after the deployment is over?

First, let me assure you: the kids are going to be fine. Yes, military life has its challenges, and military kids bear some of that weight. But this is also the only life they know. And if they go to school on base or have a lot of military friends, then they probably think it is a very normal life. “Is your Dad in the country?” is a frequent conversation-starter at military base playgrounds. When you were growing up, didn’t you think that most families in the world did things the same way as your family? Do you remember how surprised you were to learn that a friend’s family had different house rules, spent money differently, celebrated holidays differently, or practiced a different religion? It is the same with our military kids. This is the only childhood they know. So let’s do our best to make it a good one for them!

Military children handle deployments differently at different ages. Click To Tweet

A guide to prepare your child for deployment, by age:

Prepare children for a military deployment with these questions and activities.

Prepare children for a military deployment with these questions and activities.

Babies and Infants:

They may seem too young to understand anything about deployment, but they will notice the absence of a parent. They are also very aware of the stress levels in the parent who remains behind. So try to take care of yourself and keep as calm as possible. If your baby is born during the deployment, you may wonder how they will adjust to their deployed parent after Homecoming Day. You can take steps to prepare baby during the deployment by showing pictures of the deployed parent, and hanging them around the crib or swing. You can play videos so baby can hear his voice. You can get the baby used to their dad’s scent by laying the baby on one of his old T-shirts. They can also lay on cammies to get used to the texture of Dad’s uniform. Don’t be too disappointed if the baby doesn’t cooperate for a Skype call. It happens. Dad will just be happy to see the baby, and they will have plenty of time to get to know each other later.

For Homecoming, talk to your spouse ahead of time about reasonable expectations from the baby. It is possible that the baby will cry when they first meet their parent or not want to be held by them. This wasn’t actually the case for us–the babies warmed up to Dad right away! But it is a possibility, so don’t put too much weight on that first moment. After a very short amount of time, the baby will get used to the other parent being home. Babies can sense love and affection. If you are affectionate and smiling and laughing with your spouse, it will let your baby know that this stranger is ok. Babies have a very short-term memory, so once Dad has been home for a week, the baby will feel like he has been there forever! Don’t worry about the deployment affecting their long-term bond. They have the rest of their lives together to get to know each other. Both my boys didn’t know Dad for the first 6-7 months of their lives, and now they are both very close to Dad and completely comfortable with him. That bond formed very quickly, despite the deployments.

Toddlers:

Toddlers are a challenge even without deployments, so they are an extra handful when a parent is deployed! Somehow, I have managed to have a 2-year-old for our last 3 deployments. It is not my favorite stage. A toddler is old enough to remember the deployed parent, and be aware that they are gone. But they are not quite capable of rational thinking yet, so they won’t understand most of your explanations. They may just think the parent is playing Hide-and-Seek for 7 months. Talk to your toddler before and during the deployment, even if they don’t seem to understand. Tell them things like, “Daddy is deployed, but he loves you and he will come back. Do not tell them that Daddy is “at work,” because that causes confusion about why they can’t visit him, and may cause them to panic after the deployment when he actually returns to work. It’s ok to say that Daddy is “fighting bad guys,” but toddlers don’t need to know about deployment dangers or war.

To keep their memories strong, you can show the toddler pictures and videos of Daddy. Be sure to take some videos on your phone before he leaves–just simple things like him playing with the toddler or giving kisses. Toddlers will enjoy the United Through Reading program, which is a free service with sites all over the world that allows deployed service members to record a private video of them reading books or talking to their child. The recording is then sent to the family, where it can be played and enjoyed again and again. This age also benefits from comfort items like a Daddy Doll made from a picture of their dad, or a Comfort Quilt, which contains multiple photos of them and Dad together. The dolls are purchased with a variety of options, but the quilts are FREE to military families. Both can be acquired just before or at the beginning of a deployment.

If you’re wondering if your toddler will act out during deployment… the answer is YES. It is a huge change in their lives, and can lead to all kinds of behavioral problems, from tantrums and yelling, to reverted behavior and changes in sleep patterns. You have to be very, very patient with a toddler during a deployment. Keep in mind that during a 7-9 month deployment, a toddler will go through several different developmental stages. So once you get one stage figured out, the next one will begin. This is exhausting and stressful, but hang in there! They will not be screaming or biting or throwing tantrums forever! Try not to give attention to the bad behavior, and use distraction to get them interested in something else. (I am writing this for myself, too, since I currently have a 2-year-old during a deployment, and she is VERY LOUD!) At Homecoming, be aware that the toddler may act very crazy and silly and try to show off for Daddy. Or they may be very shy. Both are normal. In the first few weeks of adjustment, it is normal for a toddler to revert back to younger behaviors. They may stop sleeping through the night or throw more tantrums than usual. It is also possible for a recently potty-trained toddler to start wetting themselves during the readjustment period. For this reason, I recommend that you do NOT try to potty train a toddler during deployment! If at all possible, wait until later.

Do NOT try to potty train a toddler during a #deployment! #milspouse Click To Tweet

Preschool and Kindergarten:

Military kids ages 3-6 will have their own unique challenges during deployment. They remember their deployed parent and have formed a bond, including special traditions, behaviors, routines, and jokes. All those things will be missed, and the remaining parent cannot fill in every gap. Talk to your child about how things will change, but how the change is only temporary and Dad will eventually come home. Do your best to keep up with some of the games and sports that Dad used to play with the kids. Help them to stay connected to their parent as much as possible. They can draw pictures or write letters. They can send emails (that you help them type). They can also keep a running list or picture wall of all their new accomplishments–they learned to ride a bike, did well on a test, did a school project, etc. That list can be sent to Dad, along with pictures, so that he can see all the new things they are learning while he is away.

This age can be a tough one for behavior and discipline. Children will know how to push the buttons for the remaining parent, and will want to test the limits of house rules. I recommend writing down the family rules and expectations, and displaying them for everyone to see. You can use stickers or allowance money as an incentive to do chores. You can keep the deployed parent involved in discipline by giving the children occasional little gifts from their deployed parent. I have done this with a sticker chart and Dollar Tree items that magically showed up on the doorstep as a gift “from Dad.” It really reinforced good behavior, while serving as a reminder that Dad wants each child to be obedient and helpful. Children this age are also old enough to remember important promises, so the promise of a big vacation after deployment can be a huge motivator and something to look forward to. (Our kids filled a huge jar with Dimes for Disney.) But be careful not to make such promises lightly, because kids will really cling to that as the only good thing coming out of the deployment experience, and the reward that makes it all worthwhile.

Preschool and Kindergarten children cannot read well and don’t have a good sense of dates or times. So visual displays are very helpful to them. Be careful about saying things like “Daddy will be home after Christmas, when it is cold out.” I had a friend whose son put on winter boots every day–starting in August–to try and make the deployment end sooner. Use a visual countdown for the deployment, such as a jar of Hershey kisses to represent “a kiss a day while Daddy’s away,” or a paper countdown chain that can be ripped off one link at a time to become much shorter. There will be a special guest post about visual countdowns coming next month!

School Aged Children:

If your child is attending elementary school, then they know what is going on with a deployment. They probably have friends with a deployed parent, and have discussed whose father is in Japan and whose is in Afghanistan. They have a lot of emotions, ranging from fear to anger to loneliness. They may not bring up their concerns because they aren’t quite sure how to voice them. But the deployment will certainly affect them emotionally, and will probably alter their behavior and their attitude. The best thing you can do it to talk often and openly to your child– before and during deployment–so they know that you are there to support them, you love them, and you want to answer their questions. You should be their safe haven during this time. Don’t lie to children this age–they will know it. You may need to gloss over some details, but talk to them honestly about Dad’s job and what he does, and why. Let them know that you are sad and miss him, too, and that it is ok to talk about it and cry about it.

Children this age become very comfortable with routines and regularity. So try to keep life as “normal” as possible. Allow them to keep the same school, same friends, and same activities that they had before the deployment. Try to keep the same household chores, rules, and expectations. Don’t keep them at home all the time; instead let them get outside and play, hang out with friends, look forward to social events, and play sports. Try not to make the deployment an excuse for why they can’t do things. Don’t say, “we can’t do that because Daddy’s not here.” That will cause frustration and resentment towards the deployed parent, and possibly toward you. Instead, explain to them that it is hard for you to do what they are asking, and brainstorm together if there is a solution or a better alternate activity.

After the Homecoming, children can sometimes overwhelm their deployed parent with all their requests to play together and do special things together. It’s hard for them to understand that Daddy is tired and needs to rest a little. They want to cram 7 months of missed playtime into the first week! To make things go more smoothly, have them brainstorm BEFORE the Homecoming some of the most important things they want to do with Dad. It can be anything from “go to the park” or “build a fort” to “eat at a favorite restaurant” or “take me fishing.” Write down each of their ideas on a piece of paper, and gather them into a jar or bowl. Each day, Daddy can select one (either randomly or by looking at them) and do the 1 special activity. This way, the child realizes that Dad wants to spend time with them, but they won’t overwhelm him with demands! It’s also a good way for kids to take turns and make sure that everyone gets to spend time with Dad.

I don’t have any older children, so I can’t offer any insight into deployments with a Middle School or High School student. If you have one, please comment on what has worked for you! Who else has strategies for preparing their child for deployment?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like to read about Reintegration with your military spouse after deployment.

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