Many people wonder how to help their children during deployments. I was pregnant during my spouse’s first deployment, but I remember watching other spouses with children and wondering how they managed to help their children through deployments and still thrive themselves. I grew up in a military family, and my father deployed multiple times during my childhood. What I remember most from my childhood is my mother’s willingness to speak to us about what we were going through, as well as having a supportive environment with friends and at school. All that being said, I still have a lot to learn about helping my own children through deployments!
Getting through deployments with children can seem like a daunting task. However, with the right preparation, flexibility, and (sometimes) humor, it it is possible.
Below are some tips and tricks to help your children survive and thrive during family separation:
This may seem straightforward, but find a way to help your child say goodbye. Letting your children experience saying bye to the service member parent is important for them to process the transition. This does not have to be elaborate. It could be as simple as hugs and goodbyes exchanged at home the morning they go out to sea. If possible, take your children to watch the submarine go out to sea. Waiving bye to the submarine can be a special memory for children and signifies a transition.
Establish a Routine
In general, establishing a routine helps children organize their time and understand transitions. During deployments, it is important to try to keep your children to their normal routine as much as possible (during COVID-19 of course, this is a different story). However, it is also important to allow some flexibility and be kind to yourself. If you are unable to get your children to all of their activities on your own, figure out which parts of your child’s routine are most important and provide the most support, then maybe cut back on a few activities if necessary. A consistent routine can help children have less uncertainty in their lives.
This could be a countdown calendar that you keep in the home. I personally do not like using countdown calendars because I have yet to experience a deployment, patrol, or underway that came back on the dates they were expected to. Some children have a difficult time with countdown calendars, particularly if the boat’s schedule changes. Some children might prefer a count up calendar or counting paper chain. Other families might create a timeline with a “start” and “end,” but without dates, and move a paper sub along the timeline throughout the deployment. However you track, these activities help children understand timelines and create a concrete understanding of time.
Create a “Kiss Jar“
There are a few different ways that you can do a Kiss Jar. Many people do these with a countdown calendar, and the children get one Hershey kiss every night or morning from their deployed parent. This helps children feel connected to their deployed parent. I actually use a kiss jar throughout sea tour, for those late nights that my spouse does not come home for bedtime. What I like about a kiss jar is that you can keep filling it up, and it does not necessarily have to be something that is limited to deployed times. My girls love getting their “kiss from daddy,” even when he is technically “home,” and it makes night time routines easier.
Gift a “Daddy” Doll
There are many different types of dolls and stuffed animals for deployed family members. Some people get dolls with their spouse’s face on them, such as those that are made by Daddy Dolls, Inc. When I was younger, my mom made pillowcases with pictures of us with our dad on them. My daughters have a “daddy bear.” They both have their own, one is blue and the other is green. There are many different kinds of USN teddy bears available at the NEX. If you have time during deployment preparations, your spouse can make a Build a Bear with a voice box.
It is easy to dismiss these dolls as something that is only for younger children. However, do not underestimate the impact that such a present can have on an older child or teen. These transitional objects can be used as a representation of their parent, and can be a way to maintain a connection. When my father deployed for 15 months in 2004 when I was a teenager, he gave me a stuffed bear that he picked out. While I no longer had any stuffed animals, I kept that bear on my dresser for the entire deployment. I still have that bear, and my girls play with it now. Some teens might actually enjoy having a personal stuffed animal from their deployed parent.
Keep Memories Alive With Videos or Letters
If the deployed parent has time before deploying, request that they write a personal letter and/or create a personal video for every child. A handwritten note, given by the deploying parent, can be a powerful gift for a teenager. A personalized video can help a younger child through difficult and emotional upheaval during the family separation. My spouse records himself reading a few books to the girls before every deployment. He also records a personal video for the kids. I then have those videos on my phone to show my children when they request and/or are missing their daddy. For the first time during a recent patrol, I placed the videos on my daughter’s Ipad, so that she could watch them whenever she wanted.
If there is not enough time to create these kinds of videos, spend some time recording family videos or find some family videos that your child likes to watch. These could be videos of special events or of mundane every day activities. My toddler loves watching one video of her playing in the pool with my spouse, she used to watch it on repeat during a recent patrol. These types of videos help keep memories alive and connect younger children with their deployed parent.
We have been lucky, in that my spouse has yet to miss a child’s birthday, but normally misses my birthday, our anniversary, and his birthday. However, make sure you continue to celebrate family milestones while the deployed parent is out to sea. For birthdays, have the deploying parent write a birthday card before they leave, or record a special birthday message. A little bit of preparation can help remind a child that their parent is thinking of them, even when they are away.
Socialize With Other Military Families
This could be attending play dates during deployments, or attending FRG meetings. It could also be going to a kid’s halfway night. Having your children around other military children can help normalize their experiences, as well as give them a social outlet. On one of the boat’s my spouse was on, the wardroom hosted Sunday night dinners throughout deployments. This was a fun activity where the children could play together and the spouses were able to hang out. It provided a much needed social outlet not only for the spouses, but also for the children.
Know that some children experience brief behavioral and/or emotional regressions at the beginning stages of deployment. However, if these changes last longer than a week or two, please reach out to your pediatrician or to a child mental health specialist. The adjustment to a parent deployment can be difficult on children, and any troubling or concerning behaviors should be discussed with the pediatrician. This article from Military One Source discusses options for mental health counseling.
How do you help your children through deployment? Comment on what helps your family and provide tips and tricks for others!