Preparing for the deployment of a service member is an emotionally, physically, and relationally taxing time for parents in a military family facing deployment. (Read more about the challenges for parents.) But the adults are not the only ones affected. In spite of the fact that young children are able to understand very little about what lies ahead, particularly if this is the first deployment they’ve faced, deployment is a stressful experience for them because it affects the most important people in their small world.
All children, regardless of age, will pick up on the emotional state of their parents. From infancy, children are wired to tune in to the faces, voices, and behavior of their important people. They quickly learn what’s “normal” from each parent and come to expect it in their daily interactions. The stressors that parents experience as they prepare for deployment inevitably show in their faces, voices, and behaviors, often without their awareness. But young children are keenly aware that something is different. They notice that a parent is less attentive and more distracted or occupied with other things. They notice that a parent is more irritable and not as happy as usual. They notice the faces and voices of their parents when they are talking (or arguing). They notice when their daily routines are disrupted as parents try to manage all the tasks that must be completed. They notice when a parent isn’t as available to play, read, or talk to them.
In short, young children will notice any change in their parents that affects their daily interactions, and preparing for deployment is full of the kind of changes that can cause young children at any age to feel confused, unsettled, and insecure. These feelings will manifest themselves in children’s behaviors and attitudes. The specific behaviors will differ based on a child’s temperament as well as age. The following list helps you spot some behaviors at different ages that indicate a child is feeling the stress of changes at home.
Toddlers and twos:
Child care providers can play a helpful role in supporting the child through this difficult time.
Pay attention. Take note of changes in a child’s behavior or demeanor. If the parents haven’t told you that a deployment is coming up, mention the changes to the parent and ask if they are anticipating a big change as a family. It doesn’t always occur to parents to let their child care provider know right away. As time goes on, it may be helpful to keep a log of your observations so that you can recognize any patterns or situations that seem to make things better or worse for the child.
Provide security. Remember that at the core of the child’s behavior is a feeling of insecurity and anxiety because of changes in the relationships with the most important people in her life. You can help to reduce those feelings by providing an environment that is predictable, comfortable, and secure. You also help by sending intentional messages, through words and actions, that you are a safe person on whom she can depend for comfort and structure, no matter how she’s feeling or acting. This is especially important for infants and young toddlers who have the fewest resources for managing their thoughts and feelings.
Offer assistance. When a young child’s brain is being dominated by emotion, the child is less able to regulate and manage himself, to focus his attention, and to communicate and think clearly. Many of the abilities he demonstrated and situations he handled well a month ago are now too difficult because his brain is busy coping with the emotional load. When you notice that he is having a hard time focusing or thinking clearly, step in and provide him with extra assistance. That might mean simplifying instructions for an activity or suggesting a strategy for handling a conflict. It may also mean helping a child calm himself or lending extra encouragement for participating in a fun activity.
Allow a comfort item. When a young child is distressed about a parent’s absence, even if it hasn’t happened yet, being able to hold a personal item that connects her to her parent is very comforting. Although some might think it would only make the child sadder or more upset, that’s not usually the case. Whether it’s a parent’s photo or T-shirt or a toy that the parent gave her, allowing the child to bring her comfort item to child care and access it when she’s feeling blue will let her know that it’s okay to feel sad. She will also sense that you understand and care about helping her feel better. If you have a rule about personal items, reconsider it during times of stress like this. The benefits far outweigh any possible negative consequences.
By working together with parents of a family facing deployment, you can benefit the child at child care and at home. Make it clear to the parents that you know that this is a difficult time and that you are committed to partnering with them to provide for their child’s well-being. That simple message will help ease their concern about the impact of deployment on their children. For families with children who are old enough to talk about what’s happening, here are some other ways that you can work together with them as a family:
Give children a way to help. One of the best ways to deal with difficult emotions such as anxiety and fear is to take a positive action. Talk with the parents about some concrete activities that their child can do to help prepare for the service member’s departure and absence. Young children love to help adults, so give the child opportunities to help pack, choose photos for the parent to take with him or her, make preparations at home, etc.
Give children concrete images. Suggest to parents that they talk about where the deployed parent will sleep, eat, and work, using photos or other concrete ways for children to picture the parent’s daily routines. You can even help make a homemade book from the photos and information that the child can continue to refer to and talk about after her parent is deployed. Share those images between home and child care. If a child can picture and talk about where her parent is eating breakfast while she is eating breakfast, for example, she will feel more connected to and less anxious about her parent.
Talk about communication. Encourage parents to talk about how they will communicate as a family during the deployment. Let the child know that he will have opportunities to draw pictures, write notes, and send packages by mail and that he will receive mail from his parent, too, sometimes. If electronic communication such as video chatting is feasible, talk about it and practice together before the parent leaves. Encourage parents to talk with you about their plans so that you can incorporate communication with the deployed parent into the child care setting.
Plan for homecoming. Deployment is temporary and when children know that, it helps. But measuring time is too abstract for most young children to grasp without help. Talk with parents about a way of marking time that is not only visual but also fun for kids. Two methods used by many military families are: 1) making a paper chain with one link for each day of deployment that the child tears off each morning; and 2) filling a jar with pieces of candy equal to the number of days until homecoming and eating one each day. Talk with the family about doing something similar at child care as well. One word of caution, however: orders sometimes change with short notice, so links or candies may need to be added if return plans change.
A knowledgeable, attentive, compassionate child care provider can do a lot to ease young children’s anxiety about what’s happening in their small world. By providing comfort and support to the children, you are also providing parents with the comfort of knowing they have a trusted partner who will help their children cope. As Retired Army Colonel and child/adolescent health expert Elisabeth Stafford has said, “If you want to honor a member of the military for their service and sacrifice, take exceptionally good care of their legacy, their children.”
For more articles and resources about supporting young military-connected children and their families, visit Child Care and Military Families on the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care website.