How to Prepare Your Children for Deployment

close up of girl writing

Have it be a deployment, patrol or underway, whatever term you use, they all lead to family separation. Within the submarine community, this time apart is unique as there is little to no communication between service members and their family back on shore. Preparing for this time of family separation, while similar to other communities, can be a little different. While the “pre-deployment” time is hectic for everyone, it is essential to prepare children for deployment.

You get word that your spouse is about to leave for some sea time. You and your spouse are stressed getting everything prepped and ready. What about the kids? To help children prepare for an underway, whether it is a short period or months long, it is important to have open communication.

Here are some common questions and tips concerning preparing children for a deployment:

When do I tell my kids?

The short answer is “it depends.” When you tell your kids depends on a lot of factors, such as the tempo of the boat and the developmental level of the child. You know your children best, so informing them of the pending deployment should be done in a developmentally appropriate manner. If your child is younger and does not quite understand time, you might wait until closer to the deployment. If you tell a younger child too soon, they may not make the connection that the service member is leaving, because they have no concept of time. If you have an older child, telling them a little earlier might help them feel better about the transition to sea time.

How do I answer their questions?          

Many children, even younger children, might have a lot of questions regarding the upcoming deployment.  One of my recent favorites came from  my oldest: “But daddy, how do you breathe underwater?”    

Be open to their questions, answer what you can, and be honest about emotions. Being able to identify your emotions can help your child express theirs. Help your child identify the feelings they might be having and practice using emotion language. If you have an early elementary aged child, this might be helping them identify emotions rather than acting them out. (i.e. saying “I feel sad that daddy is leaving” rather than throwing temper tantrums or hitting a pet). This could mean allowing older children to process the news of a deployment in their own time, but letting them know that you are available to talk when they want to. It is important to acknowledge your child’s fears and emotions regarding family separation.

What about regressions?

Some children experience emotional and behavioral regression during the preparation for deployments and the beginning stages of deployments. Know that this is more than likely a phase that will pass. Be patient, as being overly reactive to regressions can further them. Even if they are frustrating, know that once things settle back into a routine, most children do adjust to deployments. For example, my older child recently struggled with using the toilet and began having multiple accidents for about two weeks leading up to a patrol. While they were frustrating, as she has been potty trained for 1.5 years, I had to remind myself that this is an unsettling time for her as well as me and my spouse. After we got into our “new normal,” sure enough the potty accidents stopped.

Spend time together

As a boat gears up for sea, we all know how difficult it  can be to find time to spend together.  Oftentimes work schedules change without notice, and therefore plans are hard to come by.  However, you should strive to spend some quality family time together, but also dedicate individual time with the children. For example, leading up to underways and deployments, my spouse often will take our daughters out for ice cream, or watch a special movie with them at home. Sometimes my spouse will draw pictures with them, and let them keep the picture he drew. These are small activities that do not require much planning, but which my girls talk about during deployments (“remember when daddy took me to get ice cream?”). These activities can help keep the children feeling special, loved and connected  even after the boat leaves.    

Prepare together

Be sure to include your children in some of the preparations. This could be allowing your children to decorate a halfway box or a calendar square. What I like to do with younger children is have them pick out snacks and draw pictures for my spouse. You might end up with a halfway box full of Swedish Fish, beef jerky, kids drawings, and a stuffed animal, but the kids will have fun helping their parent “get ready” for deployment. Giving your children a little bit of control over something that is out of their control can help with the transition.

Discuss expectations

There tends to be a slight shift in household responsibilities during family separations, and many older children might try to take on responsibilities that your spouse had. The non-deployed spouse might expect children to take on other household responsibilities. This can make older children feel overwhelmed. Make sure to discuss this ahead of time. If you expect your older child to take on some more household responsibilities, this should be discussed in advance. A discussion gives your child a chance to voice any objections as well as sets clear expectations, which will hopefully avoid arguments during the deployment.

Lastly, here are some books to help younger children with family separation:

  • Underneath it All: A Submarine Bedtime Story by Brianne Humara and Underneath it All: A Submarine Bedtime Story about Mommy at Sea by Brianne Humara. Written by a submarine spouse for children, this story discusses submarine life. It is written in a way to help children understand deployments.
  • Long Distance Love is Special by J. Pettit Juergens. This is an older book that was given to me by my in-laws. I am unsure if it is still in print, but I have found it at libraries before. This is a book about “long distance love”, but it can be used to help children understand that they are still loved, even from a distance. There is a page about a parent on a submarine.
  • The Invisible String  by Patrice Karst. This is a favorite book of mine to read to my children. It is not specific to military members or to the submarine force, but it is about how our hearts are connected by an invisible string made of love. I have my spouse read it to my children before he goes out to sea, and then we discuss how our strings are all still connected, even when we are far apart.

Stay tuned next month for a post about helping children through deployment. How do you prepare your children for deployment? Share some tips and tricks below for others.

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