A Mom Enough listener asked for advice on supporting her grandchildren (ages 3 and 7) during their mom’s year-long deployment. Just after their mom gets home, their dad will be deployed for a year, so the children will deal with the absence of one parent while also potentially adjusting to a different parenting style.
We want to help support military families! Here is what Marti had to say:
It’s great that you are thinking in advance about what you can do to help your grandchildren through a very challenging situation. I encourage you and the parents to look at the many excellent resources available on the Department of Defense’s website for deployed families. Click here for Military OneSource. Several of the specific resource materials on that site would be very suitable for children the ages of your grandchildren. They also should be able to help your family connect with direct support services for military families in your community.
For now, here are a few of my suggestions for a few things you might do before and during the parents’ deployment:
1) Assuming you live close by, spend as much time as you can with your grandchildren now so they are very used to having you as a part of their regular care once their mom leaves.
2) Join together as a whole family to generate creative ideas for staying connected – having the absent parent use Skype or FaceTime to look at the children’s art work, help with homework, read bedtime stories, sing songs together. Support services in the military generally are very encouraging of this kind of connection, knowing it helps keep both the kids and the parents healthy and strong.
3) Keep routines as normal as possible, even though one parent will be absent, minimizing changes in the lives of the children.
4) When the children go through periods of sadness or anger about the parent’s absence, as they are likely to do, listen calmly, offer comfort and let them know you realize they are really missing their mom (or dad). Sometimes we want to tell kids everything is OK or even tell them to “be a big boy or girl” and not cry. But it’s important for the children to have safe people with whom they can express their feelings openly and receive comfort. Then you can ask what they would like to do now, like making something nice to send to their absent parent or planning something special to do during the next Skype session, such as showing off a new skill.
4) If the children seem to be having a lot of difficulty with the separation (e.g. having nightmares, becoming very withdrawn or aggressive, having difficulty at school), seek help from a psychologist with experience with these kinds of issues. Again, military family support services should be able to help, so learn about those services well before deployment.
5) Finally, to the extent possible, encourage the parents to connect with other military families in the community who are going (or have gone) through similar experiences. Learn what has worked for them and their children and help your grandchildren find comfort in getting acquainted with other kids like them.
I hope these suggestions will at least help you get started in helping your family create a plan for staying strong through these separations. You could also listen to the Mom Enough podcast we did with Dr. Abigail Gewirtz from the University of Minnesota. She does research and advocacy with military families like yours. Click here for her show discussing the unique challenges faced by children and families when a parent is deployed.