Military Families

When Parents Deploy: Keeping kids on track during long separations

'Off the Record,' 11/11/14: The families of our veterans also sacrifice for our country. We need to also salute and thank them.

 

The stay-behind parent, often the mom, is left to juggle all of the household chores and responsibilities, as well as keep the kids feeling safe, secure, and centered.

While every family has its own way of dealing with the situation, moms who have weathered multiple separations often have a few tricks up their sleeves — and are happy to share them.

Maintain Routines

Keeping day-to-day routines — from family dinners, to attending church services, to doing chores — is critical.

“We would focus on getting through the day as normally as possible … getting up, getting ready, going to school, doing homework, going to whatever practice we had at the time,” said Mary Fran (not her real name), a mom in Annapolis, Maryland, whose husband, John, has deployed to Kuwait and Afghanistan.

She said her two young daughters soon realized that Mom couldn’t do everything alone, so they stepped up their efforts to help around the house.

Keep Kids Busy

Leonard Wong, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, has studied the effects of deployments on adolescents. He stresses the importance of a strong family structure and participation in activities.

“All activities are good, but some are better,” Wong said. “For example, video games provide distraction, but sports provide distraction plus physical activity, a coach who cares, a team to share life with, and usually a parent’s attention as they get ferried to the sport.”

Talk to Strangers

Family and friends, of course, will want to support you in any way possible. But don’t forget to make sure everyone your child interacts with, such as clergy, coaches, and your kid’s teachers and school counselors, is aware of the deployment. Teachers and school counselors are with your children many hours of the day, and can be critical in helping kids to feel secure.

“Mom told my teachers and my guidance counselor that dad was away, so they knew. They would help me if I got sad in school,” said Mary Fran’s younger daughter, who was 9 at the time of her dad’s last deployment.

You may even find that casual contacts from the neighborhood are happy to lend a hand in surprising ways, like shuttling kids to activities, bringing over dinner, or folding the laundry.

Break the Rules

Sometimes, doing things out of the ordinary can be just the right feel-good family medicine.

“We tried funny, different things we knew wouldn’t fly with Daddy around,” Fran said. “Like vegetarian week. Or group sleepovers, where the girls would camp out in my bedroom.”

Along the way, they made memories that carried them through a difficult time.

Keep in Touch

Unlike in decades past, families don’t have to wait weeks for letters to arrive from a war zone. Today, between email, cellphones and Skype, families have many ways to instantly connect — although service members may have a lengthy wait, depending on circumstances at their base. Skype in particular has been a godsend for military families; the ability f0r kids to see the faraway parent in real-time can make all the difference.

 “I was very excited when Dad would call or Skype,” said Fran’s oldest daughter, who was 11 at the time.

Communication is critical for making service members feel less stressed, too, as often their biggest worry is how things are going back home. When Fran’s husband was in Kuwait, checking in was the most important thing on his daily to-do list.

“When I got back to camp in the morning, instead of sleeping for five or six hours, I’d stand in line for two hours to make a 10-minute phone call to make sure everybody was OK at home,” he said. “That’s what put my mind at ease.”

Send Some Love

Don’t underestimate the power of a care package to lift spirits on both sides of the ocean. Kids love assembling special foods, drawings, and more to send to Dad — service members really do thrive on getting these loving parcels from home.

“Care packages became a ritual,” Fran said. “We would bake cookies and send them at least every two weeks, if not every one.”

During her husband’s last deployment, when he was one of the senior officers, she also included items like soaps, lotions, and treats to share with everybody there.

“So many enlisted people don’t have anybody at home with the means to send them stuff,” she said.

Use a Stand-in

“Flat Daddies” is a program that provides a life-size cutout of a deployed service member to their families. The goal: Having a visual on Dad (or Mom) who can participate in activities helps to make the service member feel closer.

Fran hadn’t heard of the program, but she ended up with her own version, “Cardboard John,” created for her by friends who wanted to include her husband in the group’s 50th birthday celebration. The night of the party, guests signed wishes for him, taking pictures of themselves beside the cutout, which all became a memory book they sent to him in a care package while he was stationed in Afghanistan.

“I thought it was great when I got it,” John Fran said.

After the party, the cutout went home with his wife, and she and her girls found themselves interacting with it time and again. During the holidays, they dressed up Cardboard John. At Christmastime, he became Santa. When her daughters were selling Girl Scout Cookies, they put a sash on “Cardboard John” and stood him on display next to the cookie table.

“I liked dressing up Cardboard Dad,” Mary’s older girl said. “It made me feel like he was still around, even when he wasn’t.”

Take a Break

It’s important to take care of yourself, too, as a mom’s stress level often transfers to the kids. Be sure to give yourself a break now and then.

Go for a walk. Hit the gym. And while you’re taking care of yourself, breathe deeply and visualize the day your spouse will be home, safe in your arms.

Help for the Holidays

The holiday season can be especially hard on deployed service members, who miss their families more than ever on Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Now is a great time to send something to our troops — whether it’s a letter or card offering support and appreciation, or a contribution to a care package that will bring a soldier some holiday cheer.

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