Communication is Key for Children of Deploying Parents

dad hugging teenage daughter
Father embraces teenage daughter after returning from a year away. (Jarrod M. Vickers/DVIDS)

Deployments are tough on military Families, especially children.


Separation can take its toll on youth of all ages, and experts agree that parents should take steps to help their children cope during this difficult time.

"Many times we forget the kids, that they go through the same emotions, fears and concerns as we do," said Simone Hartley of the U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr Army Community Service Family Advocacy Program.

Robin Kelley, the program's program manager, said parents and caregivers should "start preparing the child as soon as you know about an upcoming deployment."

Such groundwork should involve the entire Family, with parents talking individually with each child.

"Children often pick up on subtle emotional changes in their parents, and if they become aware that their mother or father is behaving differently, they may personalize it and believe they are the cause," added Navy Capt. Daphne Brown, a clinical psychologist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany. "They need to understand, in concrete terms they can grasp, what is happening and why."

But this crucial communication should not be a one-time event, Ms. Kelley stressed, adding that parents should use every opportunity to prepare each child according to his or her age and their level of understanding."

Additionally, Ms. Kelley said it is important for a Soldier-parent to spend time separately with each child prior to deployment because "it is about respecting your child as an individual, who needs your undivided attention."

Reinforcing that notion, Capt. Brown said, "Spending time individually is very important because it establishes connections."

She said children often experience the same emotions as parents prior and during deployments, but "they just show it in different ways, often through behavior."

Pre-school children, for example, may exhibit regressive behavior, such as bedwetting, and a desire to sleep in the same bed with parents. Children in this age group, Capt. Brown said, do not have a total grasp of time and they simply "do not understand what it means that daddy is going away for a long time."

Another common deployment characteristic for pre-school children is egocentrism.

"Kids are very egocentric," Capt. Brown said, explaining that they often think that if a parent is leaving, they have probably done something wrong.

And pre-school kids experience what Ms. Kelley called non-reality "magical thinking," believing that if they wish or pray for something to happen, it will come to pass.

Another common pre-deployment reaction of that age group is feelings of rejection by the deploying parent. I don't love you can be heard often from the children, Ms. Kelley said. "This is where the parent should react with 'I know that you are angry but it is okay, I still love you.'"

Common pre-deployment behavior for school-age children includes difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, resentfulness and denial, according to Elizabeth Hill, an adolescent substance abuse counselor for Grafenwoehr's middle school.

"Anger is also a primary reaction that consists of fear and hurt," Ms. Hill said.

Plus children may become irritable, or even withdraw from their parents and friends.

"Some children develop physical problems, such as stomach pains and headaches, while others cling to the parents more closely," Capt. Brown noted, adding it is not uncommon for school-age children to also exhibit regressive behavior and "become more clingy or whiny."

And though teenagers are more mature, they are just as likely to exhibit pre-deployment stress. Common behaviors for teenagers: depression, problems sleeping, missing curfew and cursing.

"It is like they are thinking if I am bad, my dad cannot go," Ms. Kelley said.

"Sometimes teenagers have difficulty saying they are scared for deployed parents," she pointed out, noting that teenagers can also suddenly begin to avoid a parent who is leaving.

Regardless of the different age groups and behaviors, military child experts agree on one matter - the diverse behavior of children of deploying parents is normal.

"Whenever there is a noticeable change in a child's behavior that appears to be more negative or immature, you should consider ... that the child is struggling because of the upcoming deployment," said Capt. Brown said.

When parents see such emotions, Ms. Hill suggests they listen to the child with an open mind, keeping the lines of communication flowing; it helps children to deal with changes and to restore predictability.

"Children need a great deal of routine and predictability," Capt. Brown said. "Certainly a parent leaving the household disturbs both of those factors. Behavioral problems are far more likely to be resolved if children do not have the extra anxiety of wondering what is going to happen next in their world."


Another key to helping children cope with deployments, she suggested, is "reassuring them of your love."

Capt. Brown called children, ages 8 to 10, as very egocentric as well, meaning they see many events in their world occurring because of their actions. Reassuring young ones that they are loved, she said, can help to eliminate the misperception that the parent left because the children were bad, are unlovable, or somehow did something wrong.

However, Ms. Kelley cautioned, "Reassuring the kids that they are loved and reassuring them that you are coming back are two very different things; never make a false promise to a child."

"You should be honest with the child that there is risk - but at a level the child can understand," Capt. Brown agreed. While a teenager can comprehend that the deploying parent may face dangers, younger children cannot process that information.

Ms. Kelley said parents should explain this in an age-appropriate manner: "If the kid is 6 years old, you do not give them statistics."

The best way to phrase it, experts concur, without making a false promise to the child, is reassuring them that the parent is well-prepared for his job, that all Soldiers work together as a team to keep each other safe, and that the parent will do everything possible to return home safely.

"One should definitely be honest while focusing on the positive perspectives that can provide reassurance," Capt. Brown said.

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