How do I explain a deployment to my 2-and-3-year-olds? They ask “why” a lot and don’t understand that Daddy will be gone for a while where they can’t talk to him or see him. I need to know how to help them without breaking down.
This is a great question and one shared by plenty of people. There are many ways to help your toddler understand what’s going on and to help you deal with the challenges of deployment as well.
- Explaining time: It’s so hard to explain the concept of time to toddlers. They already think that the hour they need to wait for dinner is an eternity. It’s that much harder to explain how long a month or more is for a TDY or deployment. What works for my 3-year-old daughter is making Daddy a part of our everyday conversation. We don’t avoid talking about him – I think that causes more confusion and makes their little minds wonder what happened to Mommy or Daddy if we’re no longer talking about them. In our house, we talk about how Daddy is at “long” work, and he’s working fast to do the best job he can and come home.
- Sharing daily life: My daughter usually gets most frustrated when she wants to share something with him. Our solution is a deployment journal, where she can tell me anything she wants me to write down to tell Daddy when he comes home. We fill the journal with jokes, memories and tidbits about our day. We add pictures and she doodles in it, too. It’s something that kids and spouses can do to help feel more connected while their service member is away.
- Keeping in touch: We definitely Skype and call with the kids when we can, and my husband sends occasional letters addressed to each of the kids so they feel super special.
- Counting down: Make a paper chain and let your child remove one chain a day or week to help countdown to Mommy or Daddy’s return. If you’re really ambitious, have your spouse write messages on each strip before leaving. This works with a countdown calendar, a candy jar – you get the idea. It’s a nice visual reminder for kids and helps reassure them that there’s an end game. And if plans change and your spouse gets delayed, just add a few more links or pieces or candy when your child is napping or out of sight.
But overall, the best thing is to have a positive attitude about the deployment so your kids will, too. This doesn’t mean you can’t cry – you’re human, after all. Just try to save the super meltdowns until after they go to bed. Just remember: you got this. Now take on this deployment with toddlers like the rock star you are.
How do I get my teens to understand that I’m also hurting when Dad leaves?
Ahhh … teens. Interesting creatures, right? They’re so grown up, yet sooooo not quite there. It sounds like you may be battling some teenage angst while also dealing with your own emotions over your spouse’s deployment. First thing first, it’s totally fine to be struggling with your spouse being gone. It’s ok to cry, skip the laundry, eat microwave popcorn and ice cream for dinner once a week … oh wait, is that just our house?
But seriously, you’re hurting, and I think it’s perfectly normal to acknowledge that. I would talk with your teens in a casual way over pizza or even a friendly game of mini golf. Ok, maybe not mini-golf, but don’t call a family meeting or you’ll risk a teenager shutdown. Tell your teen how you are missing your spouse, and share ways you can all cope as a family. If your teen is being especially teenager-y, chances are that it’s about the deployment, too. Acknowledging your emotions will usually bridge the gap and get them to share as well. And because teenagers are young adults, you can typically negotiate with them. When you’re having what I call a “deployment day,” let them know that you are pretty stressed, sad, whatever it may be. You might be surprised how your teen steps up and helps out. By the way, if you find that your “deployment days” are turning into weeks, it might be time to talk to someone. Find a friend, sister, mom, spiritual leader, or even give Military OneSource a call for confidential help.