How do you parent a child who misses their other parent during a time of deployment? This is a common question military wives (and husbands) ask when they are suddenly single parenting in a military marriage.
Deployment and parenting complicate marital matters when one spouse must be away to serve their country for up to 12 months at a time. Nearly half of all active duty service members are married and 3 percent are in dual-active duty marriages. Since 2001, more than 2 million military children have had a parent deployed during their childhood.
Deployment is part of military life. Most often, it’s the husband who serves as an active duty service member, and the wife becomes commander-in-chief in the home taking leadership of the children when dad is not able to be home.
It’s easy to explain to another adult that a husband will return soon when he’s finished with work, but to younger children, and even teens who are vulnerable to peer pressure or sad that their parent is missing major milestones in their life, it’s a big loss and felt deeply in their hearts.
I’ve personally read on several friends’ Facebook walls their sadness when their spouse is gone on active duty. One friend posted “Lord, give me strength” as she shared multiple images of her husband with their children. “Another one posted, “My pillow is soaked with tears,” as she shared how much she missed her partner for life.
The transition back home is difficult, even though their relationship together is missed. The military has programs that help both the civilian and active duty service member to transition back into normal life together. Regardless, as stable a marriage can be under these circumstances, there is still a sense of inconsistency that can creep up in the behavior of a child when deployment happens. Behavior problems can show up first in school when grades drop or problems with staying focused take place.
These are often signs that the child is hiding worry that their parent won’t return, especially during a time of war. To help keep the parenting load from becoming overpowering, the parent who is left behind often will pack up and move closer to their hometown or back in with their parents during that year.
This can be a challenge since there’s another change of schools, or bedroom arrangements– military families move three times more often than civilians. So, the loss of friends can cause depression even in the youngest child. It can feel like a lot is being sacrificed and there’s no time to grieve the changes.
There are ways to prepare families before and after deployment time arrives.
- Be honest with the child.
Tell the child that there will be a change and what the time frame will be. Let the child have an opportunity, to be honest without judgment on your part. In fact, if you’re sad, it’s okay to let your child see those emotions. This can help them to feel confident that they aren’t alone.
- Communicate confidence.
Let the child know that they will have their needs met, even if it means it could take a little bit more time. If there are financial concerns or issues with time constraints because only one parent is present, talk about priorities and work with your child to help them understand what it means to prioritize needs and wants. If a visual helps, write what needs to be done on a list and keep it on the fridge with a deadline. When you can’t meet that deadline, let them know what is happening and why.
- Find ways to keep the absent parent part of the family’s life.
Use Skype, write letters, keep a log of what you want to do when the parent returns. There are all kinds of fun ways for parents and children to stay connected with one another during an absence. You can make creative new traditions for when a parent is deployed, especially if this is a chosen career and deployment will become a part of life. When the child is sad that their parent is not there for an event, find a way to communicate the event with photos or a video to share.
- Set a routine and include lots of time together.
It can be a lonely time for a military spouse when their partner is gone, but this is also a wonderful time to bond with your child. Make a simple routine that includes fun activities and a chance to talk with one another. Before your spouse is deployed, you might even talk about what routines will be set before deployment, so everyone is on the same page.
- If behavior problems in school or at home come up, don’t blame anyone, including yourself.
You can easily feel as though you can’t do it all and that your child’s reaction is a sign that you have failed them emotionally, but you haven’t. Frustration is normal at the beginning. Look into support groups, on Facebook or at school, reach out to a counselor, or friend and remember that this too shall pass.