How do you prepare for deployment for military kids of different ages?
My readers often ask:
Is my military kid prepared for deployment?
How will my child adjust to deployment?
Will my child still be able to reconnect with their deployed parent after the deployment is over?
First, let me assure you: usually, the kids are going to be fine. Yes, military life has its challenges, and military kids bear some of that weight. But this is also the only life they know. And if they go to school on base or have a lot of military friends, then they probably think it is a very normal life. “Is your Dad in the country?” is a frequent conversation-starter at military base playgrounds. This is the only childhood they know. So let’s do our best to make it a good one for them!
“Military life is the only childhood our military kids know! Let’s make it a good one for them.” ~The Seasoned Spouse
Support through deployment for military kids, by age
I have written a lot about getting military kids through deployment. I’ve raised my 5 kids through multiple deployments at all different ages. It’s such a common question that I dedicated several pages of my Ultimate Deployment Guide to tips and resources for military kids. You can see the highlights below, or download the entire guide here.
Deployment for military kids: Babies and Infants
They may seem too young to understand anything about deployment, but they will notice the absence of a parent. They are also very aware of the stress levels in the parent who remains behind. So try to take care of yourself and keep as calm as possible. If your baby is born during the deployment, you may wonder how they will adjust to their deployed parent after Homecoming Day.
You can take steps to prepare baby during the deployment by showing pictures of the deployed parent, and hanging them around the crib or swing. You can play videos so baby can hear his voice. You can get the baby used to their dad’s scent by laying the baby on one of his old T-shirts. They can also lay on cammies to get used to the texture of Dad’s uniform. This is a great way to handle deployment for military kids who haven’t even met their deployed parent!
Don’t be too disappointed if the baby doesn’t cooperate for a Skype call. It happens. Dad will just be happy to see the baby, and they will have plenty of time to get to know each other later.
Military kids going through deployment experience common challenges. Help prepare them with the Ultimate Deployment Guide.
Deployment Tips for Toddlers:
Toddlers are a challenge even without deployments, so they are an extra handful when a parent is deployed! Somehow, I have managed to have a 2 or 3-year-old for our last four deployments. It is not my favorite stage. A toddler is old enough to remember the deployed parent, and be aware that they are gone. But they are not quite capable of rational thinking yet, so they won’t understand most of your explanations.
They may just think the parent is playing Hide-and-Seek for several months. Talk to your toddler before and during the deployment, even if they don’t seem to understand. Tell them things like, “Daddy is deployed, but he loves you and he will come back. Try not to project your own feelings onto your toddler. Often, you will be surprised that they carry on with life as usual, except for brief episodes where they really miss their parent. Deployment for military kids of this age can feel like a roller coaster of heart-breaking moments.
To keep their memories strong, you can show the toddler pictures and videos of Daddy. Be sure to take some videos on your phone before he leaves–just simple things like him playing with the toddler or giving kisses. Toddlers will enjoy the United Through Reading program, which is a free service with sites all over the world that allows deployed service members to record a private video of them reading books or talking to their child. The recording is then sent to the family, where it can be played and enjoyed again and again.
This age also benefits from comfort items like a Daddy Doll made from a picture of their dad, or a Comfort Quilt, which contains multiple photos of them and Dad together. The dolls are purchased with a variety of options, but the quilts are FREE to military families. Both can be acquired just before or at the beginning of a deployment.
If you’re wondering if your toddler will act out during deployment… the answer is YES. It is a huge change in their lives, and can lead to all kinds of behavioral problems, from tantrums and yelling, to reverted behavior and changes in sleep patterns. You have to be very, very patient with a toddler during a deployment. Keep in mind that during a 7-9 month deployment, a toddler will go through several different developmental stages. So once you get one stage figured out, the next one will begin.
This is exhausting and stressful, but hang in there! They will not be screaming or biting or throwing tantrums forever! Try not to give attention to the bad behavior, and use distraction to get them interested in something else.
Routines and regular schedules are very important. It is normal for a toddler to revert back to younger behaviors. They may stop sleeping through the night or throw more tantrums than usual. It is also possible for a recently potty-trained toddler to start wetting themselves during the readjustment period. For this reason, I recommend that you do NOT try to potty train a toddler during deployment! If at all possible, wait until later.Kids experience different deployment challenges at different ages. Here's how to get them through. #milspouse Click To Tweet
For more deployment support and tips on deployment for military kids, visit my Deployment Masterclass:
Deployment for military kids in Preschool and Kindergarten:
Deployment for military kids ages 3-6 will have its own unique challenges. They remember their deployed parent and have formed a bond, including special traditions, behaviors, routines, and jokes. All those things will be missed, and the remaining parent cannot fill in every gap.
Talk to your child about how things will change, but how the change is only temporary and Dad will eventually come home. Do your best to keep up with some of the games and sports that Dad used to play with the kids. Help them to stay connected to their parent as much as possible. They can draw pictures or write letters. They can send emails (that you help them type). They can also keep a running list or picture wall of all their new accomplishments–they learned to ride a bike, did well on a test, did a school project, etc. That list can be sent to the deployed parent, along with pictures, so that they can see all the new things the child is learning while they are away.
This age can be a tough one for behavior and discipline. Children will know how to push the buttons for the remaining parent, and will want to test the limits of house rules. I recommend writing down the family rules and expectations, and displaying them for everyone to see. You can use stickers or allowance money as an incentive to do chores.
You can keep the deployed parent involved in discipline by giving the children occasional little gifts from their deployed parent. I have done this with a sticker chart and Dollar Tree items that magically showed up on the doorstep as a gift “from Dad.” It really reinforced good behavior, while serving as a reminder that Dad wants each child to be obedient and helpful.
Children this age are also old enough to remember important promises, so the promise of a big vacation after deployment can be a huge motivator and something to look forward to. (Our kids filled a huge jar with Dimes for Disney.) But be careful not to make such promises lightly, because kids will really cling to that as the only good thing coming out of the deployment experience, and the reward that makes it all worthwhile.
Preschool and Kindergarten children cannot read well and don’t have a good sense of dates or times. So visual displays are very helpful to them. Be careful about saying things like “Daddy will be home after Christmas, when it is cold out.” I had a friend whose son put on winter boots every day–starting in August–to try and make the deployment end sooner!
Use a visual countdown for the deployment for military kids who are too young to read, such as a jar of Hershey kisses to represent “a kiss a day while Daddy’s away,” or a paper countdown chain that can be ripped off one link at a time to become much shorter.
This deployment countdown chart can be customized for any branch or deployment. Download one for you military kids:
Tips for surviving deployment for military kids who are school aged:
If your child is attending elementary school, then they know what is going on with a deployment. They probably have friends with a deployed parent, and have discussed whose father is in Japan and whose is in Afghanistan. They have a lot of emotions, ranging from fear to anger to loneliness. They may not bring up their concerns because they aren’t quite sure how to voice them.
But the deployment will certainly affect them emotionally, and will probably alter their behavior and their attitude. The best thing you can do it to talk often and openly to your child– before and during deployment–so they know that you are there to support them, you love them, and you want to answer their questions. You should be their safe haven during this time.
Don’t lie to children this age–they will know it. You may need to gloss over some details, but talk to them honestly about their service member parent’s job and what they do, and why. Let them know that you are sad and miss your spouse, too, and that it is ok to talk about it and cry about it.
There is more support and encouragement for parents of military kids in my book, Open When: Letters of Encouragement for Military Spouses. Each letter addresses a common challenge of military life, including “Open When You Have Little Ones Who Needs You,” “Open When Your Child Struggles at a New School,” and “Open When the Kids are Acting Out.” It’s like having an inspiring chat with a friend who truly gets you and all the challenges of your military journey! You can purchase Open When on Amazon, buy it directly from the publisher, or order an autographed copy here!
Children this age become very comfortable with routines and regularity. So try to keep life as “normal” as possible during deployment for military kids in school. Allow them to keep the same school, same friends, and same activities that they had before the deployment. Try to keep the same household chores, rules, and expectations.
Don’t keep them at home all the time; instead let them get outside and play, hang out with friends, look forward to social events, and play sports. Try not to make the deployment an excuse for why they can’t do things. Don’t say, “we can’t do that because Daddy’s not here.” That will cause frustration and resentment towards the deployed parent, and possibly toward you. Instead, explain to them that it is hard for you to do what they are asking, and brainstorm together if there is a solution or a better alternate activity.
After the Homecoming, children can sometimes overwhelm their deployed parent with all their requests to play together and do special things together. It’s hard for them to understand that Daddy is tired and needs to rest a little. They want to cram seven months of missed playtime into the first week!
To make things go more smoothly, have them brainstorm BEFORE the Homecoming some of the most important things they want to do with Dad. It can be anything from “go to the park” or “build a fort” to “eat at a favorite restaurant” or “take me fishing.”
Write down each of their ideas on a piece of paper, and gather them into a jar or bowl. Each day, the service member can select one (either randomly or by looking at them) and do the one special activity. This way, the child realizes that their parent wants to spend time with them, but they won’t overwhelm with demands! It’s also a good way for kids to take turns and make sure that everyone gets to spend time with their parent after Homecoming.
There is more advice, encouragement, and support for deployment in my Deployment Support FB group, Handle Deployment Like a Boss! You can join for free below.
These are great tips! With so much going on during a deployment, sometimes we forget to stop and think about our littles!
Thanks, I hope it will be helpful. Yes, it’s easy to overlook all that the kids go through.
I really enjoyed reading the article and all of the suggestions to prepare for separation and reintegration. However, I would like to suggest using a Mom as a Soldier in some of your writings. This is geared solely toward a fathers separation. There are so many Mothers deploying it would be nice to see that represented here for inclusion and recognition of the sacrifice both men and women make. Thank you
Thank you for reading and for your input! You’re right, I typically try to use much more inclusive language for service members. I wrote this one while I was taking care of 4 kids during my husband’s deployment a few years ago, and focused on my own experiences as a mom raising the kids alone. I should update it to be more relatable to some readers.
Hello! I’m new here and I will soon leave my child for a period of 6 months… It’s the first time ever they will be without mom and I am very concerned for their mental and emotional health. My children are 5 and 7 years old. Can you recommend some ways to make the separation easier for them? I really loved this article btw. ❤️
Please be my friend I’m lonely your post made me cry my toddler won’t sleep bc dads gone:((((((
Of course, I’m here for you! I also have a really supportive FB group called Handle Deployment Like a Boss! Join there, because with over 7,000 members, there are lots of friends and always someone who is awake!
My husband is deploying for the first time in July. I have a 4 year old, 2 year old, and an infant who will be 3 months at the time of deployment.
I feel confident in how to carry out the conversation with my kids, but how far in advance would you recommend breaking the news to the 4 year old? I don’t want to blind side her, but I also know she doesn’t have a great concept of time, so I don’t want to stress her or make her dwell on it unnecessarily either by telling her too far in advance. But giving her too short of notice seems cruel although I know she won’t be able to “process it” anyway. Suggestions?
Great question! You’re right that she can’t understand time much beyond this week. But whenever the pending deployment is going to affect her, she should know about it. So if your husband is taking leave, or if you’re doing a family trip before deployment, or if there are any major changes happening in advance, then that’s when you should talk to her about it.
Try to use visuals like a calendar or a countdown chart so she understands when it will be. Or tell her a timeliness, like “right now it is May, when you still go to preschool. When school ends, it’s June. That’s when we go to the pool a lot and visit the grandparents. Then comes the 4th of July with fireworks. After that is when Daddy has to leave for a while on deployment.”