Welcoming a deployed parent home is such an exciting time for a military family! Even very young children catch the excitement of anticipating a long-awaited homecoming. But once the exhilaration of reunion day passes, the family begins the long, slow, often challenging, and always emotional experience of reconnecting and reestablishing life with their service member at home. Child care professionals who work with military families can play a critical supporting role as children and parents alike go through the process known as “reintegration.” Here are five ways that you can help.
One of the most helpful things you can do for families, particularly before they are reunited and during the initial homecoming and honeymoon phases, is to provide them with information about how their child is likely to respond to this exciting but unfamiliar situation. Share what you know about children developmentally and what you know about their particular child’s temperament. This will go a long way toward helping them have realistic expectations about their child’s initial reintroduction. Also, share some very practical ideas that the service member can use to create warm, enjoyable interactions with his or her child as they get to know each other. This is especially helpful for the parent whose child was born while he was deployed and who is interacting with his baby for the first time. But it is also helpful for any parent who has been away long enough that his or her child is developmentally very different than when they were together last. A newly returned parent will also appreciate seeing all of the photos, anecdotes, artwork, writing samples, developmental assessments, and other documentation that you may have collected for the child's portfolio/file while the parent was gone. This is a very concrete and meaningful way to connect the parent to his or her child's experiences while in child care. It has the added benefit of bringing him or her into the parent-provider relationship you already have established with the homefront parent.
Studies of military families during reintegration have uncovered some common experiences among them. The diagram illustrates four phases that families typically go through. Each family member, including each child, has a unique perspective as he or she works through the highs and lows of each step toward their family’s “new normal.” And, of course, children will experience it differently, depending on their age and temperament. Individual family members don’t always go through the phases at the same pace, and sometimes a situation comes up that causes them to go back to an earlier phase. The process may also look a bit different if the service member expects to be deployed again. But, in general, most families go through a version of these phases. Use this “typical” information as awareness of what might occur with any particular family.
Although knowing what’s typical is a great place to start, it’s most important to understand the experiences of the particular family in your program. That understanding is best achieved through ongoing communication. Be proactive. Take the initiative to let each parent know that you want to provide support and that you will partner with them to help their child adjust. Invite communication through means that are most comfortable for each individual. For example, if face-to-face, direct conversation isn’t appealing, suggest regular communication by email. Talking over a cup of tea may be just the thing for a mom, but a dad is more likely to open up during the incidental chat that accompanies working together on fixing a broken trike. Be sensitive. Be flexible. Talk often about how the child is adjusting, sharing information so that each of you has a better sense of how the child is coping both at home and at child care. Together you may spot patterns of behavior that need further attention. But be sure to share plenty of positive and lighthearted stories as well!
During this time full of changes and uncertainty, providing a familiar, predictable place for a child to be for a chunk of the day can be a huge support. A familiar child care setting offers him a place to rest and refuel, a place where he can feel confident and competent, and a place where he knows exactly what to expect. This allows his body’s stress response system to power down and gives him the opportunity to use his natural means of coping – playing and pretending – to manage his thoughts and feelings.
Interviews with thousands of military families have made one thing very clear: reintegration as a family takes time! Some families will find their way to the new normal in a few months. Others will take many months, even years, to reach a place where they are comfortable with one another. Many factors can make the adjustment period stretch out longer, not the least of which is injury or psychological trauma that the service member may have experienced. When individual recovery is added into the equation, the process of adjusting to one another and finding family harmony becomes significantly more difficult, even when the service member and family are receiving services and support from military health care providers and family support programs.
Even in the healthiest and strongest of families, rediscovering themselves as a family all living under the same roof will take time. Your patience, particularly with young children going through this experience, will be much needed. Expect them to express their big emotions, frustrations, and confusion in their behavior. Expect changes in their sleep, their moods, and their activity levels. Expect their attention span to shorten and ability to manage their impulses to lessen. You may even see them regress in things like toileting, self-help skills, and language skills. But with your patience, encouragement, and support, they will bounce back.
Much attention has been given to supporting children and families during the time that a parent is deployed. Everyone expects that period to be a time of difficulty and adjustment. But the recognition that being together once again is equally difficult, though for different reasons, is less common. For child care providers, that awareness is an important part of providing sensitive, wise care for each military family you serve.
“Getting to Know You (Again): Helping Young Children Adjust to the Return of a Military Parent” (recorded webinar) https://learn.extension.org/events/1071
“Homecoming: Reconnecting after Separations” (booklet for parents and caregivers of infants and toddlers) http://www.zerotothree.org/about-us/funded-projects/military-families/syc-2.pdf
“Home Again,” by Dorinda Silver Williams (children’s book) http://amzn.to/15o44K5