The questions are always gut-twistingly obvious:
“When will Daddy be home?”
“What is he doing there?”
and the worst of all —
“Why does my daddy have to go when other daddies don’t?”
The answers are misleadingly easy. I mean, I know the answers. And I’ve got a degree in communications so (theoretically) I can communicate them. But then I look at them— those round-cheeked, button-nosed hybrids of me and the man I love, with their shiny puppy eyes and faces so open and eager.
And they make me want to lie.
“Tomorrow” — is what I want to say, even though the answer is really “April.”
“Playing Monopoly” — is what I want to tell them, even though the truth is decidedly more dangerous.
But the last question? That one I can always answer honestly and without hesitation.
“Because your daddy is brave. He’s like a super hero. Other children are in danger and your daddy is one of the only people in the whole world who is willing and able to help them.”
Sorry. (Not sorry.)
I don’t care if my answer implies that other daddies aren’t brave. Parents who don’t deploy can answer questions about that from their own children if theirs ask. That’s not my problem.
My husband is photoshopped into our family portraits. I had to teach our son how to pee standing up. Our daughter didn’t meet her dad until she was crawling and she has never been to any of the Daddy/Daughter events we see around town. Our kids haven’t had their dad at their birthday parties for four years in a row now. They’ve earned the right to be exceptionally proud of him.
Besides, as it turns out, my answers aren’t too far off from how the experts recommend parents answer children’s deployment questions.
The Child Mind Institute has an excellent pre-deployment recommendations article. In the article: Dr. Ellen Devoe, and associate professor at Boston University School of Social Work, says that service members and their spouses should give their children two messages prior to deployment:
- Tell your children that the service member has an important job to do—a job that’s so important that he/she is going to make the sacrifice to be away from the family for a certain amount of time. (This is the part that we’ve been doing pretty well.)
- Tell your children that they are just as important as that job. (D’oh! I’m not so sure my husband and I have delivered that second message. I guess we thought it was obvious — and we’re not alone.)
Dr. Devoe, the article says, has found that families often give the first message but not the second. Families overemphasize the importance of the job as a way of explaining the separation. This leaves some kids to wonder why the children of Afghanistan are more important than they are.
As for answering those first 2 questions— when will he be home? and what is he doing there? — The National Military Family Association has put together this useful guide, based on research they commissioned, to help military families talk about deployment.
Much of it is common sense for parents and you’re probably already doing it. Children from 0 to 3 do not have a good understanding of time, so telling them the actual length of the deployment won’t do them any good. When our 2-year-old daughter asks me when Daddy will be home, I simply tell her that he’ll be home, “after many sleeps” and then I tell her that he loves her and misses her, which is, more or less, what NMFA recommends.
Some people suggest doing a candy count down to mark the days. We tried this— it was a total failure. We filled a jar with enough Skittles to mark each day of the deployment and then, a mere three weeks into the deployment, I noticed there were only about 12 Skittles left. Paper chains, however, do work well in my house— probably because no one wants to eat them.
Our 6-year-old daughter is a true Daddy’s girl and this current deployment is hitting her hard. When she asks (over and over again) when he’ll be home, I tell her “April” and then I explain that April is after Easter, which is after Christmas, and that the weather will be warm again then because it will be springtime.
I also tell her about the weather where my husband is and sometimes we look up the forecasts where he is and that gives her something to talk about with him when they’re on Facetime or Skype. She’s also learned a few words in the language spoken where he is and she likes to impress him with what she can say.
Our 10-year-old son is our oldest child and I’ve honestly lost count of how many deployments he’s lived through. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the deployments do not get easier. In fact, this is the hardest one yet for him because he’s old enough to understand more and he feels his dad’s absence deeply. I can’t hide the truth from him, though I do try to protect him from the scariest parts. This is in line with what NMFA recommends, as well.
We don’t live on the installation and our son is bitterly aware that most of his friends don’t have a parent deployed. He’s at an age when fairness is everything and the unfairness of that is something he really struggles to understand. Fortunately, there are some great resources for military kids. We’re blessed that his school has a Military and Family Life Counselor (MFLC) who has a weekly deployment support group at the school for children who have a parent deployed or deploying soon. It’s been tremendously beneficial for both of my school age children to attend the meetings and meet other kids who are dealing with deployment.
For teenagers, NMFA says the deployed parent should work to communicate directly with the teen as much as possible using email, texting, social media, phone calls and letters. Obviously, teens are going to be much more aware than younger children, so parents should be open and honest with their teens about the deployment, while taking care to not scare them.
Deployments are hard, and they’re hard on the whole family. My family has been through so many deployments that it’s tempting for us to get smug about them. We should be good at this by now, right? The thing is— we’re not. Every deployment is different because people are dynamic, we all grow and change.
Sometimes even those of us who are expected to answer all the questions need some answers for ourselves or our children need more help than we can provide. Thankfully, Tricare covers psychological services for all military dependents and you don’t have to have a Primary Care Manager (PCM) referral to access those services. Military OneSource is a great first stop for finding a provider in your area who can help or you can simply call your PCM and ask an advice nurse how to get the help you need.
Here are additional resources for talking with your children about deployments:
- Military OneSource’s website has information to help with every aspect of the deployment, including how to deal with practically any problems that might arise and links to more resources.
- The Home Base Program
- Getting Kids Ready for a Deployment from the Child Mind Institute
- Family Focus Friday: Preparing Children For Deployment at DoD Live
- How and When to Talk about a Deployment, University of Minnesota
How do you handle your kid’s tough questions about deployments? Share your tips in the comments section.