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Effects of Deployment on Children & Families

Effects of Deployment on Children and Families Effects of Deployment on Children and Families

​Deployment is heart wrenching for all military families, but especially for those with children. 

As one parent tries to take on both parenting roles and cope with not having a partner for a long stretch of time, the kids have their own stress issues. 

  • Toddlers may not understand why mom or dad isn’t there for bedtime.

  • School-aged children may worry mom or dad will be hurt.

  • Teenagers, dealing with the usual adolescent issues, may have anger that mom or dad had to leave in the first place, along with new household responsibilities.

​Although deployments will never be easy, here are some steps from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to make things a little less stressful on the homefront.

Step 1. Educate yourself before deployment.

Before a parent is deployed, one of the most beneficial things to do is educate yourself. There are many programs and other resources available to inform family members about what to expect with deployment, possible feelings and reactions of the homefront caregiver and children as the deployment begins, and things to expect as the service member returns from deployment.

If you’re prepared about what to expect, you won’t feel so thrown for a loop and will be better equipped to handle it if you or your child has a difficult time with the deployment.

Identify your circle of support. Who will you turn to for advice or help or just to talk about what's going on in your parenting? Seek support from counselors, physicians, family and friends, faith communities, and others who can help you see what you are doing well and to connect you with more support when needed. See Child Care Support During Deployments

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Deployment Goodbyes 


"It's been forever since we've said one of these goodbyes. Last time we only had one child (and one on the way). Turns out the goodbye is exponentially harder when there are more little hearts to console.

These days are the worst... that feeling in the pit of your stomach that today is the day. The lump in your throat you get when you're trying not to cry. The dinners, holidays, and birthdays that still have to happen even though he's not here. Those last tear-soaked kisses..."

―Libbie Czaja, mother of 3 whose husband, Navy EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) technician, Brett Czaja, deployed on October 14, 2019. 

Step 2. Share…and listen.

Probably the most important thing you can do to help alleviate some of your child’s deployment-related stress is to talk about it with them—and listen. Be open to answering your child’s questions in as straightforward and age-appropriate way as possible.

And remember, your child is watching your reactions, too. You don’t have to suppress your own feelings, but, if your kids see you really stressed and falling apart, they may echo your reaction.

Don't forget to put on your own oxygen mask first.

You don't have to be a superhuman. Think of a flight attendant who instructs us to put on an oxygen mask before putting one on our precious child. We can't take care of our child if we cannot breathe ourselves.

You can't be expected to be a calming force for your family or even to be able to listen while you remain in crisis mode or are wearing yourself thin. You will know you're ready to talk to your children when your adrenaline has run its course. Maybe you'll need to:

  • Cry or scream it out of yourself.

  • Talk to someone to sort through your own emotions about the situation.

  • Reach out to service providers, like the American Red Cross, for help.

Then, when you can think more clearly, you can talk with your children in the calm, reassuring way that will help all of you regain your footing.

Step 3. Monitor what your kids see.

After any disaster, parents and other adults struggle with what they should say and share with children and what not to say or share with them. News reports of bombings and death, especially in areas where they know their parent is, may be very stressful. No matter what age or developmental stage your child is, start by asking what they’ve already heard. 

Most children will have heard something, no matter how old they are. After you ask them what they’ve heard, ask what questions they have. Older children, teens, and young adults might ask more questions and may request and benefit more from additional information. But no matter what age the child is, it’s best to keep the dialogue straightforward and direct.​ See Talking to Children About Tragedies & Other News Events and How to Talk to Your Child After an Act of Terrorism

In general, it is best to share basic information with children, not graphic details, or unnecessary details about tragic circumstances. Children and adults alike want to be able to understand enough so they know what’s going on. Graphic information and images should be avoided.

Keep young children away from repetitive graphic images and sounds that may appear on television, radio, social media, computers, etc.

Step 4. Maintain closeness.

Although the deployed parent is far away, he or she can remain close in the kids’ hearts. A stuffed animal, necklace from mom, or a t-shirt with dad’s photo on it can go a long way in helping the child feel closer to her deployed parent. 

Some other ways to maintain closeness are pointing out on a map where the deployed parent is, letting the child send e-mails, cards and letters to the parent, preparing care packages, and even jotting down family life and hometown changes in a journal to keep the absent parent updated. See A Message to Military Families: Staying Connected for more ideas. 

Step 5. Keep kids busy…but not too busy.

If your child is used to having a play date on Tuesdays or going to child care in the mornings, try to keep doing those things consistent. Kids thrive on routines. Your family is already experiencing a huge change with a deployed parent, so if normal routines also change or cease, your child's stress levels may also increase.

Just don’t go overboard keeping your child busy. Trying to push hurt feelings or questions from your child’s mind by overscheduling won’t work. It’ll only cause more stress and burnout.

Step 6. Know when to call in help.

If you notice your child’s behavior seems very extreme, it seems to go on for a long period of time, it gets worse instead of getting better over time, or you or your child are very anxious, worried and obsessed about the safety of the deployed parent and are finding it difficult to separate from that, you should seek help — whether it’s from a military support group, a military physician, your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional.

Although it can be tough to admit you’re having trouble handling your partner’s absence, or you may feel frustrated because you can’t miraculously make your child feel better, don’t let it stop you from getting help. Deployments are stressful for everyone, and getting the help that’s needed will benefit the entire family.

Recognize symptoms of deployment stress in children. 

Experts say deployment stress symptoms may vary depending on the child’s age. 

  • Babies: Feeding and/or sleeping difficulties, increased irritability, low energy

  • Toddlers and Preschoolers: Aggressiveness, clinginess, changes in eating or sleeping habits, crying more often

  • Elementary age: Regression (reverting back to baby talk or bedwetting), changes in eating or sleeping patterns, physical complaints like stomachaches or headaches

  • Adolescents: Anger, moodiness, loss of interest in normal activities; risky behavior such as smoking, drinking, drug abuse, or sexual activity.

Home, Sweet Home?

Although it may seem the child’s stress should disappear when the deployed parent returns home, it may actually increase because the parent may return with physical or mental health issues, or the child may not want to get too close to the parent to avoid the pain of saying goodbye again if the parent is redeployed. 

If you notice your child’s stress remains or increases after the deployed parent returns, individual counseling and/or family counseling may help.

Additional Information:

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2019)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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