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How Do I Explain My Deployment to My Kids?

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How Do I Explain My Deployment to My Kids? Photo compliments of U.S. Navy
Question: How Do I Explain My Deployment to My Kids?

Thousands of military parents face the challenge of explaining an upcoming deployment to their children.

Answer: Your strategy will revolve around your children's ages, personality, coping mechanisms and familiarity with deployments. Kids of active duty servicemembers may already possess a general knowledge of deployments, whereas it may be a foreign concept to children of Reservists and Guardsmen.

Young Children: When dealing with preschoolers, many military parents opt for a simple approach such as, "I have to go away for awhile and do my job." Common inquiries from small children include the basics: when, where, and how long. A sense of security is important to these little ones. Don't be surprised if your son or daughter exhibits uncharacteristic clingy behavior.

Older Children: These kids may have a basic understanding of what deployment means, but don't fully comprehend how it'll impact their world. There's a lot of unpredictability in children aged 6 to 12. Some will barrage you with inquiries during your first discussion. Others may have one or two questions, process the information and approach you days later.

Some military parents approach the topic by utilizing another servicemember's deployment as a frame of reference. "Remember last year when Caitlyn's dad had to go away for his work?"

Regardless of their reactions, expect a lot of questions from these inquisitive minds.

Teens: Compared to the other age categories, teenagers have a much better understanding of deployments. Besides questions about your well-being, they often want to know how their role within the family will change during your absence. Your teenager may react to the news by expressing a wide variety of emotions.

Anger and feelings of abandonment are common, especially if you'll miss a major milestone in their life such as a high school graduation. Others might respond by assuming an adult-like role, reassuring you not to worry about the homefront because they'll "take care of everything."

Don't Make Promises You Can't Keep
Seeking reassurance, children often put their parent on the spot by asking tough, direct questions. A natural parental reaction is to promise them the moon, stars and everything in between. However, doing so can backfire and have serious repercussions.

For example:

Don't promise your child you'll maintain daily communication—even if you believe you can. Communication blackouts, missions and a host of other variables may make this impossible. A better alternative is to explain that staying in touch is important to you, followed by informing them you'll do your best to e-mail, call or write letters as often as possible.

At the forefront of most young minds are the questions, "Could you get hurt?" and "Could you die?" Some children will verbalize the question, others will not.

Again, don't make promises you can't keep.

To calm their anxiety and fear, offer reassuring statements. "My top priority is coming home safely to you and the rest of the family. I have a lot of gear to protect me and a lot of training." To instill your point, you may want to show your child a Kevlar helmet and vest.

When presented with tough questions, some military parents insert the family's religious preferences into the conversation. "God (or whatever higher power you believe in) will help protect not only me, but you too."

Contrary to young children, teens have a better understanding of this subject matter. Often preferring logic and facts over theoretical concepts, they may ask, "What are the chances that you'll be hurt or killed?" Simple responses such as, "The odds are in my favor that I'll return home safe," may satisfy your teen's logic-driven mind. Before discussing the deployment with your teen, you may want to gather facts and statistics to support your statements.

The methods used in explaining deployments are unique to each child and family. You possess a powerful asset: first-hand knowledge of your kids. Don't underestimate this tool. Often, it's this knowledge that will guide you through the difficult discussions.

Support Material
If your child responds well to visual cues, consider acquiring videos, booklets and coloring/activity books before you approach your children. To get you started, here are a few options:

  • Numerous free videos, covering various aspects of deployment and military service are available at the Sesame Street Web site.
  • Military Child.org provides a nine-page document designed to help parents explain deployment to their children.
  • Most installations offer servicemembers a wide variety of educational material designed to help children cope with deployments. For example, soldiers can find useful information at their Army Community Service (ACS) center.
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