When my husband left for basic training, my oldest was a week away from being two years old. He loved his daddy but It didn't seem to faze him at all. This didn't surprise me, since he was such a mellow kid, always taking everything in stride. But then everything changed. My husband was allowed to come home for two weeks during the Christmas Exodus from AIT. The Sunday after he left, as I was sitting in my Sunday school class I heard the sounds of child crying coming down the hallway. I quickly recognized that cry as my son's. I looked up to see him standing in the doorway with his nursery teacher looking just as confused as I was. I picked him up and took him to the foyer to try and calm him down. I was so baffled. He never had a problem going to nursery! This kid was as cool as a cucumber, definitely not the same child I held in my arms in that moment. It was so out of character for him. What's wrong? I thought frantically, followed by, I wish Clayton was here... And then it hit me. He knows... He understands...Daddy is gone. My revelation proved to be correct as I saw the calm little kid I knew transform. He had issues going to bed, trouble sleeping, night terrors, refused to go to nursery, appetite reduction and he followed me everywhere; always needing to know where I was.
Desperate to help my little man, I searched the internet for information. I discovered in my readings that children of deployed service members undergo the same amount of anxiety and stress as children whose parents are getting a divorce. When we decided to join, I knew it was going to be hard. I knew we would miss him. But it didn't take me long to realize I had greatly underestimated just how much; both for me and my son.
My husband was stationed in South Korea right after AIT as a hardship tour. This meant we would go almost two years without living together. What felt like such a burden at the time, proved to be a blessing in so many ways. During that time, I grew as a wife and a mother. I had to adapt. I had to improvise. I had to learn. Eventually, through research and trial and error we were able to help my son and I am so grateful for the things I have learned that I can pass on to others as well! Here are my tips for helping children deal with their anxiety when your service member is gone:
1) Patience, patience, patience: Right up there on the list with love is patience. If your child is showing signs of anxiety and stress, it could mean that things that used to be easy suddenly become very difficult. Our son was a stellar sleeper. He was easy to put down so long as we obeyed the routine. But once the anxiety hit, that all changed. Dealing with his stress as well as my own (plus being oh so pregnant!) was challenging. Eventually I discovered that I needed to slow down. Our normal pace had suddenly become too fast. It was as if ever day things were brand new for him and frightening. When he wanted to play in the tub longer than normal, I let him. We read extra stories before bed and sang extra songs. I would lay next to him until he fell asleep. As much as I wanted to go to bed myself, I needed to be patient and slow things down until he felt comfortable again. As much as I wanted to attend my church classes, I spent every Sunday in nursery with him patiently waiting for him to feel confident enough to let me stand... and then stand by the door...leave for a minute... leave for five minutes... and then ten...until he could once again go in by himself.
2) Distraction: Fun distractions are great tools for keeping your child's mind off of daddy or mommy being gone. Play dates, play groups, park trips... Just remember to take your child's lead. If you start getting too busy and you notice it is stressing your child out, take it as a cue to cut back a little.
3) Routines: There have been numerous studies proving that routines are great for your child's emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. Some may need less routine than others so knowing your child comes into play here. My son needed a bed time routine that if we didn't follow religiously, we almost certainly paid for it later on. Even though I had to take more time by slowing the routine down so he didn't feel pressured, it still helped him that I maintained it. Those days where I didn't feel like giving him the bath proved to more work than had I simply stuck with it.
4) Keeping in contact with parent: This can be difficult depending on the parent's location. Although my husband was a world away, he was able to Skype or call frequently. This was an amazing blessing but obviously if the parent is deployed, those opportunities can be few and far between. Next to my son's bed I placed a picture of him and his daddy. Kissing "picture daddy" good night became part of his bed time routine. I also put together a little photo book of pictures of just him and daddy. That book went everywhere with us! My mom had a great idea of sending my husband the record-yourself-reading-books from Hallmark and then gifting them to our boys for Christmas. They cherish them and they always become the books of choice when daddy is gone. Talking about the parent, writing letters and keeping pictures all over our home are ways that really helped my son cope.
5) It's not your fault: Children may feel confused and may not understand why the parent has left. Do your best to describe it to them without scaring them. For me that meant telling him his father had to go away to work for a long time. Reminding him all the time that daddy missed him, loved him and was so proud of him helped calm his fears. Making sure your child understands they did nothing to cause their parent to leave is so important!
6) Create countdown: As we got closer to my husband coming home, I had my son help me make a paper chain. One link for each day we had left. Each morning we made a big deal of ripping off a link. It gave him a time limit. Suddenly daddy wasn't going to be gone forever. He was coming home when the chain was gone! Obviously dates change, so I found myself having to add or take links away when new information came out. I suggest making all the links the same color for this reason, so your child is less likely to notice the changes. Another fun idea would be to have a candy jar with a candy for each day. It's a great visual reference without being too obvious if you have to add or take away to make it sync up with new information.
7) Let your child's teachers know: If you are in a heavy military area, your child's teachers should be used to meeting the needs of children with a deployed parent. But sometimes you may move to be closer to family for added support and your child's teachers may not know how to best help your child. Letting them know how your child is responding and how to best help them cope is important!
8) Limit TV: And carefully screen what your child wants to watch. Military.com recommends not letting your child watch anything with military action in it. And I agree. Also if your child is showing signs of anxiety, make sure they aren't watching anything that could scare them as it could make things worse.
9) Music: There is great power in music and it can be a useful tool in setting the tone for your home! If you are religious I really recommend playing some church children songs. I also recommend soft lullabies, soundtracks from their favorite movies and some good uplifting classical. My kids favorites are the Piano Guys. Their music videos, which can be watched on Youtube, are amazing! Even if you think you aren't a classical music person, I really suggest give them a try. You may be surprised. Also, I recommend signing up for a site like Spotify. Its free music!
10) Take care of yourself: Helping your child cope is so important. Giving them the support they need is a priority. However, deployment is taxing on you as well. Take time to make sure your emotional wellbeing is good too. Eating healthy, drinking water, finding time to exercise, getting enough sleep, finding times to do things you love are all so important to make sure YOU are ok enough to help them. A great idea is to find a friend you can switch of watching the other's kids with once a week so you can have some time to reset and relax! Reducing stress is important during the rough time when a parent is deployed. Your children are watching you for clues that everything is ok. If you aren't taking care of you and your own anxieties and stress builds up they will sense it and it will only escalate their own fears. I know a lot of moms feel guilty for taking time to work on themselves but remember, taking care of yourself IS taking care of them. You are the rock and you need to be at your best! So do not feel guilty for taking a break for yourself.
When a parent leaves, life can get stressful for both you and your child. Making sure their needs are met is the most important thing you can do while someone is gone! April is the month of Military children. The time of the year where we give special attention to the life our little warriors live! Their joy and their pain. Their heartache and happiness! It's the time we give thanks to them for the sacrifices they have to make for our country as well as the life they didn't choose for themselves. They are being asked to take on the weight of the world on their little shoulders and they need all the love and support we can give them! Please share any tips you discovered that worked for you. The more we can share about our experiences in helping military children, the more we can aide others going through the same things. You never know who it could help. And remember to thank those little warriors for their service this month!
Kayli has been a wife for 7 years, four of which have been spent in the Army in which she has moved four times. She has two boys who keep her very busy and on her toes. She loves chocolate, TV, long road trips and writing about her adventures as a stay at home mom and a military wife. She is currently hosting a link up party in honor of The Month of the Military Child and is inviting anyone who wants to share their experiences to come and participate! (http://this-army-life.