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5 Ways to Help Your Military Child Cope with Separation

It’s inevitable. At some point, the service member will deploy, embark on a temporary duty assignment, or leave to spend time in the field. It’s often difficult on our military kids, especially the younger ones who aren’t sure how to process the separation. In addition, military children are often separated from extended family like grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

When my husband and I moved to Germany during our last PCS, it was a serious transition for our children. We had lived within two hours of my side of the family, and I think we all got used to that nearness.

We moved halfway across the world and now the children didn’t get to physically see our extended family in person nearly as often. To make matters worse, my husband was set up with a rotational training unit and often left for the field for extended periods.

You hear all the time that military children are resilient. They so easily roll with the punches when moving away from extended family, starting at a new school, making new friends, and dealing with a parent being gone.

It’s never easy, but most of them somehow find a way to cope.

But they don’t always manage to do it on their own.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the military lifestyle—where you’ll live next, what kind of schools there will be, when a parent will deploy or leave for an extended period, but here are a few things you can do with your military child to help make it a little bit easier.

While these suggestions are centered on the separation of a parent from children, many can be adapted to instances where children are separated from friends (like after a PCS) or when moving further away from grandparents and other extended family members.

Here are five ways to help:

1. During bedtime, include the service member

A child’s bedtime is a time of routine. From the time they’re a baby, a child learns that the bedtime routine means sleep, and they quickly become accustomed to that routine. If the service member usually participates, it can throw off the child when they’re missing.

Try to include the service member by having him or her read a bedtime story. Numerous stores now sell recordable books, where the reader holds down a button to record their voice. The child then holds the physical book and can turn the pages while the service member’s voice is reading to them.

Don’t forget to have your child kiss the service member goodnight! Find a favorite picture of the parent who is away, and hang it next to the child’s bed. Each night, after the stories, songs, and snuggles, the child kisses the parent’s picture. You can even make up a little story about how those kisses make their way to the parent.

If you’re religious, you and your child can say a prayer each night for the service member. If not religious, you could talk about all the good things you hope happen to the service member.

Either way, if your child is old enough to write, you can write your prayers or good thoughts on a piece of paper and place it in a jar. Your service member can read them once he or she returns home. If your service member is deployed, you can box up each month’s prayers or good thoughts, and mail them to show your service member that the children are thinking of him or her.

2. Start a separation countdown

If a friend is coming to visit your child, family is making a trip to see you, or the service member is coming home soon, try starting a countdown. It helps the child see that time is passing.

There are a few ways you can set up a countdown, and you may want to adjust them depending on how many days you need to work in. For example, if you want to do a deployment countdown, that’s going to be a significantly higher number of days than counting down time in the field. For friends and family, try starting the countdown at the beginning of the month of their visit. When my parents came to see the kids in Germany, we started the countdown 12 days out.

For longer separations, you can make a paper chain and hang it around the main living area of your home. Your kids can help tape or staple the chain together. On the inside of some of the links, write a fun activity.

When tearing the links off day by day, look for the activity written inside. It gives the children a bit more to look forward to. It can be something as simple as playing with PlayDoh or doing a special craft, or you can make it going to see a movie, eating at a pizza place, or having a slumber party.

A personal favorite for any separation is a candy dish. Take a big bowl or jar and put in one candy per day the service member is gone. After dinner each night, let your child take out one candy and eat it. Over time, the child will see the amount getting smaller and smaller and know that the separation is almost over. This is a good one for friends and family as well.

You can also make a tear-off sheet. I did this for my kids when counting down for my parents’ visit. We took a big piece of cardboard, and my children colored all over it. Then I wrote numbers 1 through 12 on a Post-It note. Each Post-It note was attached to the cardboard, counting down from 12 to 1. After lunch each day, one of the children would pull off the next number and we’d cheer.

You can find other creative ideas for a countdown here.

On the flip side, consider a count up. This is sometimes easier for deployments. Each day, take a rectangle of paper like you use to make a paper chain and write something special that happened that day on the inside. As the deployment progresses and time passes, you’ll have a big chain wrapping through your house, marking all the special moments.

3. Give your child a “special friend”

Some children take well to security blankets. On one of the last days before we moved to Germany, my parents took the children to Build-A-Bear Workshop to create a stuffed animal. It was meant to be a reminder of my parents that the girls could snuggle with each night.

The employees at Build-A-Bear let the kids put in three hearts instead of just one: one for the child, one for their Nana, and one for their PopPop. When the kids hug their stuffed toy, I’ve told them it sends the hugs to their grandparents.

A favorite for military families with a deployed parent is the Daddy Doll “Hug-A-Hero Doll,” a stuffed doll with a full body photo of the service member on the doll. Nowadays, you can get them with almost any person’s photo on them in a variety of sizes and styles.

4. Read a book to understand the separation

Plenty of military literature is dedicated to helping children through reintegration and the separation. You can find a bunch of titles here.

One of my favorite books on dealing with a non-military separation is called Airplane Kisses. The story is about a boy who lives in Iceland and his grandmother who lives in the United States. They send their love to one another by blowing kisses to passing airplanes. Those airplanes later deliver the kisses to the recipient.

5. Do video calls when possible

Whether it’s Skype, FaceTime, or another video calling app, modern technology helps close the gap when separated from the people we love. You can use video calls to chat with your child’s friends, family, or separated parent.

 

 

Any time your child wants to talk about missing a parent, friend, or family member, try to be receptive to their needs. The transition isn’t always easy, and it may be difficult for children to understand the “why.” Being there and willing to listen goes a long way in helping children through separations.

Author

  • Sarah Peachey

    Sarah Peachey is a journalist from southern Pennsylvania currently living in the Southeast. Previous adventures sent her to Fort Polk, Louisiana; Fort Huachuca, Arizona; Fort Meade, Maryland; Hohenfels, Germany; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and Fort Stewart, Georgia. She lives with her husband of more than 10 years, three children, one very spoiled Dachshund, and a cat who leaves a dusting of white fur on just about everything. She began a career in journalism with The Fort Polk Guardian, an Army installation newspaper, winning three state awards for her work. Her work has appeared on MilSpouseFest, The Homefront United Network, Military.com, SpouseBUZZ, and Army News Service. She consulted for MilitaryOneClick (now known as MilSpouseFest), and helped launch the site #MilitaryVotesMatter, providing up-to-date information important to service members, veterans, and their families in the 2016 election. When not writing for military spouse support sites, she is currently working on her first novel while also volunteering as AWN's Blog Editor. When she can carve the time into her schedule, she writes about parenting, travel, books, and politics on her website, Keep It Peachey. You can find her on Instagram @keepitpeachey. She has a passion for reading, writing, politics, and political discussions. She considers herself a bookworm, pianist, wine enthusiast, and crossword addict.

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