Helping your kids stay connected with a deployed parent is very important, but it is equally critical to not dwell on the issue. Finding the balance is a challenge and staying connected can be difficult. Having survived and thrived through a combined 4+ years of deployments, I can share some helpful advice.
If your son or daughter is missing his/her Daddy or Mommy, validate his worries and help him to connect by looking at a picture, sending an email or sharing stories. Don’t be afraid to talk about Daddy with your kids. They are missing him anyway, so not talking about him isn’t going to help. Talking about fun things you did when he was home can help, as can talking about fun things you’ll do when he gets home.
Similarly, though, it is important to avoid talking about Daddy too much. It is important for kids to see that life can continue normally while Daddy is deployed. Mommy can do pretty much anything Daddy can do and the family can have lots of fun, just like always.
Mom should show that she is a strong head of the family, especially while dad is away. Seeing that mom can do projects around the house, be at school activities, keep the yard looking good and still cuddle and tuck the kids in at night helps kids realize that both moms and dads can do the same jobs and that having one missing parent isn’t the end of the great family life they are used to having. Seeing mom curl up in a ball and hide while dad is away helps no one and can definitely be harmful. If kids think their mom isn’t strong, they might worry about their security.
One great way we stay connected is with Daddy Dolls. I ordered one for each of my sons right after my husband deployed in December 2010. They sat at the foot of the beds of my 12 and 14 year olds, but my 5 and 9 year olds hugged their daddy every night of the deployment while they slept. It’s a small way that the boys stayed connected to their father.
We also have a life size flat daddy that we took with us when one of the boys has a special event that Daddy would have attended, had he been home. We took pictures and sent them to Daddy by email. Also, carrying a life size cutout of a soldier or sailor always prompts positive, supportive comments from onlookers who thank the boys for their Dad’s service and their sacrifice, which is really nice. It always helps when civilian families recognize the sacrifices that military families make.
Sometimes, when one of the boys was really missing Daddy, he took the Flat Daddy into whatever room he was in to keep him company.
A daily way we stayed close to Dad is that we kept a large bowl filled with Hershey’s Kisses. Each evening, the boys each got a “kiss” from Daddy before they brushed their teeth. As his return drew closer, and we had an exact reunion date, I made sure the number of kisses was right so that the last ones were taken the day before he came home. It’s a visible reminder for the kids that homecoming is approaching.
Another visible reminder is to make a paper chain. The kids can cut the construction paper into strips. They can use their own favorite colors and Dad’s favorite colors. They take the strips and make them into loops that string together to make a long chain. Each day, the kids can take turns cutting off one of the links and only the last link remains when Dad comes home.
There’s an old song that tells us to tie a yellow ribbon around an old oak tree. We do this when Daddy leaves and when he comes home, we make a big deal about cutting it off of the tree together.
There are lots of ways to help your kids and spouse stay connected. In our family, before my husband left, he bought several Lego minifigures and let each son select one to represent himself. Then, my husband took the minifigures with him on deployment. He attached them to magnets and they attached to his bunk. He took them with him sometimes when he left the ship and took their picture at various spots, like this:
Seeing their minifigures in pictures from around the world really helped the boys feel close to their dad while he was deployed. I printed out pictures for the boys and they hung them by their beds, took them into school to share in their classes, and carried them around the house.
Finally, Skype and Facetime are fabulous for touching base. Timing can be tough, with the difference in time zones, but it can be worked out and it is worth letting the kids stay up late or getting them up early. Seeing Dad live and in person can sustain the kids, for a while at least. The kids can show Dad their school projects, read the stories and papers from class and sing songs learned in preschool. It’s good for both the parent and the children.
It’s not easy to have a parent away from home for long stretches, but if the at-home parent works at it, the absence can be managed with grace.