The separation of deployment is hard on everyone in a military family. But it’s especially difficult for families with young children because young children don’t understand or, worse yet, misunderstand the circumstances surrounding the separation. Deployment is difficult for the deployed parent because young children, especially infants and toddlers, grow and change so much in such a short period of time. Missing this exciting period of growth contributes to feelings of being disconnected and fears that the parent won’t even know his child when he returns home.
Finding meaningful ways for a child and his deployed parent to connect frequently is a critical support that child care programs can give to the family. Not only will it be very important for the emotional well-being of the parent and child during deployment, it will also be key to their ability to reconnect when the parent returns home.
Strategies to Keep Children Connected with a Deployed Parent
Here are a few strategies that child care providers can use to help children maintain connections with a deployed parent.
- Talk with both parents before deployment (or, in the case of single parents, to the person who will be providing primary care while the parent is away). Find out what kind of communication will be allowed and how often and any other circumstances that might determine the ways that the family can stay connected. Also, find out what parents are most concerned about. Decide together, before deployment, how you will be involved in keeping the connection strong so that the expectations will be understood by everyone.
Suggest a few things that the service member can do ahead of time, such as:
- recording favorite children’s stories, bedtime prayers, or other rituals or messages that the child can listen to over and over;
- taking and collecting photos of the child and parent doing favorite things together to put in a special book that the child can bring to child care;
- choosing a “lovey” – a special, small, personal item – that the child can hold or carry at child care when he’s missing Mom or Dad. (Note: Infants have a very well-developed sense of smell and touch, even as newborns. So consider keeping a t-shirt or other item that a baby associates with the deploying parent to use to comfort the baby once the parent has gone.)
Create things to share with the deployed parent. The deployed parent will be hungry for any information about his or her child, but here are just a few suggestions for things that will be especially meaningful.
- Updates on “firsts” and milestones. Children change so quickly, especially during infancy and toddlerhood. Frequent updates will help the parent stay in touch with their changing child. Photos and videos of “firsts” and other moments when they’re demonstrating new abilities or interests can help keep a parent from feeling as if he/she has missed out on important changes.
- Knowing what’s going on in everyday life is also important to parents. Share a “diary” of a child’s typical day, complete with photos, if possible. Send a monthly activity calendar so that the parent can ask the child about special events when they talk. Take photos or video of field trips, special events, or activities that are particular favorites for that child. Send a copy of your parent newsletter to the deployed parent as well as the parent or caregiver at home.
- Regularly (perhaps each month) share a collection of the child’s current “favorites”: favorite food, color, song, storybook, playmate, toy, or game, etc. Take pictures and make audio or video recordings to illustrate, if possible.
- If the deployed parent is able to receive care packages, help the child select things she has made to send to her parent. Being able to handle the actual picture his child drew or the actual Lego structure her child built can be so meaningful to a parent who’s away.
Create spaces and opportunities for sharing items from the deployed parent. All children will find comfort and closeness in having personal items that remind them of the parent and being able to show them to their teachers and friends at child care.
- Post photos of families in a special spot so that each child maintains a strong sense of belonging to her family and also sees what other families look like.
- Make sure the child has a place where she keeps personal items – a cubby or tray – including photos and other items that remind her of her parent who is away. Ask her questions that encourage her to tell you about each of the items. Allow her to have access to those items whenever she feels the need for comfort.
- Ask the parent or caregiver at home to send along photos, notes, or other “share-ables” when the child receives them from the deployed parent. Being able to share and talk about these items at school as well as at home can help deepen their meaning and impact for the child.
Supporting the child, the at-home parent or caregiver, and the deployed parent will take sensitivity, patience, and commitment. Each family is unique and each child is unique, making it all the more challenging to know just what to do to help. But the difference you can make in each military family’s life will be well worth it. Find all the resources you can to help, and find other child care professionals to network and share with. The effort will seem small compared to the reward of serving those who sacrifice so much to serve their country.
Additional Resources to Help Military Families
Here are a few resources that you’ll want to have on hand:
► For child care providers:
- Honoring Our Babies and Toddlers: Guidebook for Care Professionals
- Community-Based Child Care for Military Families
► For families:
- Deployment: Keeping Relationships Strong ( focused on infants and toddlers)
- Deployment and Children – online article from the American Academy of Pediatrics