The separation of deployment is a difficult time for military families – there’s no doubt about that! What may be less obvious, especially for those who haven’t seen it up close, is that the months before deployment are also very difficult. Understanding the unique circumstances and stressors of pre-deployment and how they affect young children is the first step toward helping them cope.
Preparing to Leave: Parents’ Experience
The stressors of pre-deployment fall squarely on the shoulders of the parents in the family. Most will experience some if not all of the following challenges.
LOTS to do! During this time, service members and their spouses must attend to many, many financial, legal, and other administrative affairs. In addition, the parents may need to make arrangements to ensure that the family’s needs are met while the service member is deployed, such as relocating to be nearer to extended family.
Distancing of the service member. As the deployment draws near, the service member often spends time away from the family for training and preparation with his or her unit. He or she begins bonding with the other unit members and focusing on the upcoming mission. Though necessary for the service member, the result for the family is psychologically distancing even when he or she is at home.
Making the most of the time together. On the other hand, the spouse may very well be trying to make the most out of the final weeks and days together, both relationally and practically. Spouses create long “honey-do” lists for the service member and plan memorable occasions together as a couple or family before the long separation.
More conflict. With one parent pulling away and the other trying to hold tighter, all while under the pressure of a mile-long “to-do” list, it’s no wonder that big arguments between couples are very common in the final weeks before departure.
Anxiety. Underlying everything for both parents is worry about what will happen once the service member is deployed. The worries that each wrestles with are too numerous to list here but the point to remember is that anxiety about the future creates an underlying level of stress that makes everything else harder.
For single parents preparing for deployment, the circumstances may be somewhat different but they are no less stressful, and perhaps even more so, as the service member must make arrangements for alternative care for their children while they are away.
So how do these adult challenges impact their young children? Though they are not old enough to understand the reasons for changes in their parents, even very young children definitely notice them. The stressors that parents experience as they prepare for deployment inevitably show in their faces, voices and behaviors, even if they aren’t aware of it. But young children are keenly aware that something is different. They notice that a parent is less attentive and more distracted or occupied with other things. They notice that a parent is more irritable and less happy than usual. They notice the faces and voices of their parents when they are talking (or arguing). They notice when their daily routines are disrupted as parents try to manage all the tasks that must be completed. They notice when a parent isn’t as available to play, read or talk to them.
These changes in their parents usually cause feelings of confusion and insecurity in young children, which they express in their behavior and mood. These troubling changes in their children can add yet another layer of stress and anxiety on already burdened parents.
A Safety Net of Care
The good news is that a knowledgeable, attentive, compassionate child care provider can do a lot to ease young children’s anxiety and, in turn, provide parents with the comfort of knowing they have a trusted partner who will help their children cope.
Coming up in a future blog post, we’ll talk about some specific strategies for supporting young children and their parents during the pre-deployment phase. In the meantime, explore our articles and recorded webinars, many of which deal with young military-connected children’s stress and strategies for reducing it.