Helping military families to stay connected when they are separated by distance.
When you are in the military, you know you are going to be deployed someday. When you are actually called to military duty and scheduled to be deployed away from your family, a range of emotions are unleashed throughout your family unit: sadness, pride, loneliness, fear, anger, confusion and stress. You manage the feelings by both acknowledging the negative and also preparing emotionally and practically for the separation in a pro-active way.
You wonder how can I foster my relationship with my children while I am away? Will they forget me? Who will care for them the way I do? One way to think of parenting during deployment is to imagine it as an extension of how you parent while at home. So, your hard work at good parenting skills pre-deployment pay off for you while you are away. As research shows, the attachment bond endures over time and space, your love endures over time and space.
Remember, a healthy parenting relationship doesn't mean that you are perfect, it just means that you consider the relationship between you and your children at the core of your parenting, notice your child's inner life, and not only notice your own feelings.
The general quality of the home atmosphere and the family parent-child relationship before deployment impacts your parent-child relationship during and after deployment. Securely attached children are more resilient and can receive love from caring, substitute caregivers more securely and readily than children who did not have the wonderful benefit of your consistent, loving parenting.
Below are some practical tips for extending and nurturing the emotional family bonds while you are away.
- Make lots of time to play or talk with your child about what is going on in the family. Use your judgment; be honest about your deployment, but not frightening.
- Use your listening skills, let your child express themselves in the way they need. Younger children express their thoughts and feelings through play using toys, clay, sand, figures, and stuffed animals. Making time to play with your younger children in an expressive way is as much a form of listening as hearing what your adolescent child has to say.
- Choose one or two special books to read each night to your child before you go away. You can have your partner continue to read the same book to the child while you were away to remind the child of your love for him. A beautiful book for young children is “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn. In this book, a mommy raccoon kisses her child's palm and tells him to put his hand to his face when he is afraid, to remind himself that she loves him.
- Pre-write a few special notes to be given to your child while you are away.
- With your family, plan and talk about the ways you intend to keep in touch, such as via a family website, Facebook, Twitter or email. Set these things up before you leave. Teach everyone in the family the password and how to use the tools.
- Hushmail is free Internet service that can make emails readable only to these with a password, sign up for this service before you leave.
- Plan ahead with your partner to keep family schedules, rules and activities intact.
- Say “I love you”.
Activities for families during deployment:
1. Use electronic means to keep in touch, such as Skype, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and a family website. When you know you are going to be able to contact your military partner via Skype, put these times in the family schedule.
2. If you are not too concerned about privacy, create a family YouTube account. It''s easy to use the camera on your computer to make video messages at home and then upload them to You Tube, where your family can access them. The videos can also be posted on a family website where they will be more secure.
3. Help the child and military parent stay connected by creating a monthly family calendar of daily activities such as soccer practice and barbecues and posting it on the family website or sending it via e-mail.
4. Purchase materials so that your child can create a scrapbook of daily life. Leave the materials in a box near a desk so they're easy to use. Present this scrapbook to the parent upon return.
5. Young children express themselves non-verbally through play. Sand box play is one way to allow for expressive play. Gather lots of small characters such as people, dogs, furniture, and fantasy creatures around the sand box. Then, ask your child to create his world in the sand box. If he doesn't want to, don't force it. Be non-judgmental and playful about what he puts in the sand box. Make it fun! Take a picture and put it in the scrapbook, if the child agrees.
6. Keep family schedules and activities predictable.
7. At home, protect children from endless images of war on TV and the internet.
8. Lifeline: A fun exercise is to have your child create a timeline of his life. Tape paper together to make it longer than shorter. Then mark the times of your child's life on the paper, such as when he was born, when he went to school, when he went fishing, when he got his puppy, etc. He can take art materials and create either a picture or a symbol of that time and then hang it on the wall.
9. Holding Hands: Have your child outline his hand. Then mail the hand to the military parent. This parent then draws his hand near the child's hand, and mails it back. They are holding hands across the miles.
10. Special Holiday Make-Up! If the military parent is away during a holiday, if everyone is particularly down, then plan to make up the missed holiday post-deployment. Write a letter or draw a picture telling the parent about the plans.
Keeping the parent-child bond alive while you’re deployed should not be an exercise in perfect parenting, fraught with anxiety. People and children are resilient. There will be pain and sadness; you can't protect your children from those feelings.
Consistent (as realistically possible), caring communication sprinkled with some expressive exercises help you feel connected with your family while you are serving our country.