Good parenting plays a critical role in buffering children from the difficulties associated with a deployment. Children who feel connected to a parent, even if they are thousands of miles away, are more likely to share their struggles, ask for advice, and feel comforted by a parent’s love.
We know parenting from a distance is hard! But there are simple actions you can take before you leave to help your child through the times ahead. Add these six things to your pre-deployment checklist:
1 Establish your comms
Do you have a plan for how will you stay in touch with your child when you are gone? Ask them for suggestions. Take a picture a day? It’s quick and easy to snap your smile and hit send. Share jokes you love via email? Print out some new ones before you leave so you have a stock to pull from.
You may not know how often you will be able to call or email, so don’t make promises you can’t keep! Instead, tell your child what you do know including that there will be times you won’t be able to talk. Many parents have made a plan with their child to look up at the moon, sun, or sky at the same time each day as a reminder that they are both thinking of each other.
Be sure to ask your child to send letters, emails or small packages to you while you are gone. A small request from a deployed parent can make a child feel needed and a part of helping out during a deployment.
2 Close the knowledge gaps
What does it mean to be deployed? You may think your child understands the word because they have heard it so many times but it is always good to sit down and discuss the details about your deployment that are age-appropriate and shareable.
A child’s imagination is usually a wonderful thing until it comes to the possibilities of what can happen to a deployed parent. How can you manage their curiosity without scaring them with the possibilities? Let them ask you the questions that are on their mind. While they may have ones you don’t want to hear, give considerate answers that assure them that you are trained and ready for where you are going and what you will be doing.
3 Remember that loose lips sink ships
Some subjects to avoid? Talking about the possibility of your timeline being extended before you even leave or other things that are due to fluctuate. Instead of having your child ride the wave of every change that may or may not happen, deal with any changes as they occur.
While laughter and joking about morbid topics help some people better deal with stress, the serious subjects you may be discussing with a friend may upset your child. Take those talks to work or into another room. Even the youngest of kids can pick up on what you are talking about and may internalize their worry while you are away.
4 Leave something special
Gifts reflect thought given about an individual, so think of something special you can give before you go. It doesn’t have to be expensive but should be something special your child can use to remember you during your time away.
There are lots of ideas you can consider. How about a recording of you singing a favorite song that she can play each night before bed? What about a photo of you in a frame of you and your child together. Small treats he can open each month?
Don’t go overboard. Expensive gifts are often devoid of the sentiment that will draw you closer but if a tablet is something they don’t own and can be one way to stay in touch, it may be worth saving up for and purchasing before you leave.
5 Record important dates
Set up reminders for important events that are happening during your time away. End of semester report cards at school. Birthdays. Prom. A big tryout for a sports team. A parent remembering and recognizing a big day in a child’s life is a big deal for them.
If you think you won’t be able to call or communicate when a special day arrives, find a way you can tell them you are thinking of them. Leave behind a card that can be given on the day or send an email in advance of the celebration or milestone. Don’t rely on just your memory! If you don’t have an electronic means for staying on track, ask a family member to help you out.
6 Build a firm foundation
Preparing for a deployment doesn’t leave much extra time for coming up with fancy ways to stay in touch or keep everyone feeling loved. While most of us would like to be able to present a grand gesture to our kids, especially before a big life event like a deployment, the reality is that we may not be able do so in the time or space that we have available.
Instead of doing something that feels manufactured, look at what your child really needs. A few extra minutes to read before going to bed at night. A conversation about how much you’ll miss them while you are gone. The knowledge that you will be concerned about them while you are away. Don’t mince words. Every person needs affirmation that they are seen and heard. Whether it is in a letter, an email, or best yet, a conversation, say the words your child needs to hear before you go.
There will be ups and downs during a deployment, but one thing that must remain constant is support for your child. There is no one way to do this because every family is different, so make a plan that fits your family and children. Committing time to your child before you leave will help both of you in the long run.
Little ears (and even bigger ones) probably listen more than you realize! When talking on the phone to other friends and family, be careful about what you say when the kids might hear.