Strategies help kids cope when parents deploy

  • Published
  • By Steve Hoffmann
  • 81st Training wing Public Affairs
What do a pre-deployment briefing and Sesame Street have in common? Answer: Elmo -- well, not exactly Elmo, but the message he has for children of parents who are deploying. OK, so maybe it's not the only message in a predeployment briefing, but it's an important one -- how will your children be cared for in your absence and how will you help them cope with your absence when you are gone?

The Sesame Street video is just one tool in a big box that parents who are deploying can use to help prepare their children for their absence and coping strategies that can help sustain them while they are gone.

Master Sgt. Jessica Woodruff, noncommissioned officer in charge of family readiness at the airman and family readiness center, deals with children, spouses and family members who've been left behind due to deployment. When dealing with children, she wants to make sure they know that they're a part of the mission, too, and that other children are going through the same thing they are. She also wants parents and caregivers to know there are a number of tactics and coping strategies that can be employed to help their children
deal with their absence.

"It all depends on the age of the child," explained Sergeant Woodruff. "For younger children, sometimes out of sight means out of mind. But sometimes they know something is wrong, but don't have the words to express their feelings, so they'll express them in their actions."

Children who are a little older who understand what deployment means often have difficulty reconciling that with what they see in the news media.

"They're afraid mommy or daddy is going to die," explained Sergeant Woodruff. "All the news shows is combat related and people getting injured or killed. That's certainly part of the equation, but it doesn't show the other working side of the house and non-combat related deployments."

So to help children better understand what deployment means for their mommy or daddy, coping strategies and tactics have been developed that can be very effective when used in a proactive way.

"One of the things we recommend for parents who are deploying is to take a picture of where they sleep, where they work and where they live and send it to their kids back home," said Sergeant Woodruff. "That way, the children have a visual and can know that their mommy or daddy is safe."

Licensed military family life counselors are also available to meet with spouses and children on a one-to-one basis to help them process their concerns and fears. They are trained to deal with a range of issues related to deployment including children who are missing their parents. Available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., they will meet with a spouse or child where they are -- a playground, at home, a café, to see how the children are behaving and interacting.

E-mails are sent once a week and gatherings are held once a month in an effort to keep deployed families informed and to build a sense of community among them. Some are geared toward spouses, and others are geared specifically for children.

"Just recently we had a police escort out to the Mardi Gras parade where we had a separate area set up just for deployed families," said Sergeant Woodruff. "As much as possible we want them to feel special, like they are part of the mission. Mommy or Daddy is doing their part while deployed and the children are doing their part at home."

Giving children a sense of mission is exactly what Operation Hero is designed to do. This fun event is held twice a year, in May and October, and lets children experience what it's like to be deployed. They get recalled and receive dog tags, a pre-deployment briefing, a mission, face paint, ID cards and are even inoculated with a shot of juice into the mouth through a syringe. Then, they get loaded onto a bus and sent to their place of deployment, which are tents where they're able to learn about and experience some of the things mommy and daddy might do when they get deployed. Afterwards, they are welcomed home with a big party.

"We have some kids who come back every year. Some of them are in high school," said Sergeant Woodruff. "Operation Hero is a lot of fun for the kids and it shows them that they have a whole community of their peers who are going through the same thing and that we're all in this together."

Military OneSource is another excellent resource for deployed families. This online resource has pamphlets, booklets and videos that deal with all different types of family change. There's a hotline where family members can call and talk to a counselor or set up personal appointments. There are tools that can help military members and their family deal with every aspect of military life. For more information, visit http://www.militaryonesource.com.

Online technology and communication have made it easier for families to stay in touch over thousands of miles. Skype is being used more and more as a way to maintain face to face communication. If users have a webcam, it allows them to stream live video of themselves while they are talking to their family members through their computer.

"Make it routine," recommends Sergeant Woodruff. "If you normally have dinner around 6 p.m. while at home, Skype at 6 p.m. every night. Routine is important because it keeps you part of the domestic routine and lets the child know you are still part of what's happening back home."

According to Sergeant Woodruff, around 80 percent of deployed locations have the technological capability to support online forms of communication such as Skype. There are even ways to be present with your child while they're sleeping. The airman and family readiness center has a pillow case program in which parents can make a personal pillow case with pictures of themselves imprinted on their child's pillow. Sergeant Woodruff also recommends using recordable books so that parents can still read favorite bedtime stories to their children.

Keesler now has a school liaison officer, Gerry Cross, who can let teachers and school officials know about a child who has a parent who is deployed. This allows teachers to be on the lookout for behavioral changes or grades that might be slipping.

But just when children get used to a parent being gone, they come home. According to Sergeant Woodruff, reintegration is often as hard as leaving.

Aside from the parent's own struggles with reintegration, the child has already adjusted to and formulated a new routine while the parent was deployed. But now, routines will have to change and new adjustments will need to be made. Sergeant Woodruff reminds returning parents to be flexible.

"Your children have had to change in order to deal with your absence," explained Sergeant Woodruff. "You must also be willing to change in order for them to deal with your being back home."

With the United States engaged in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, deployments will remain a part of life for military service members and their children. But Sergeant Woodruff offers some encouragement.

"We've been at war a long time and I don't see that stopping anytime soon," she said. "But new programs and techniques are being developed all the time in helping children deal with their parents deploying. We're getting better all the time."

For more information on tools and techniques available to help your children cope with deployment, call the airman and family readiness center 376-8728.