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The Deployment Roller Coaster: Emotions of Children


By: LIFELines

Deployment is something that Navy and Marine Corps families live with. It's part of your life if your spouse is a member of the seagoing services. Adults experience a whole spectrum of emotions, but we can usually discuss our feelings about the deployment and find understanding among our peers. We can learn about the roller coaster of emotion that comes along with a deployment.

Once we understand our emotions, we can begin to adjust and prepare to combat the more difficult times. Children, however, don't always understand that roller-coaster ride. Without their permission or consent, they are loaded into the front seat of the emotional roller coaster and taken through the loops and turns of deployment.

There are seven emotional stages that adults typically experience during a deployment. It's harder to put a label on what children go through. We can't always tell how they're feeling, and they can't always tell us what they're thinking, or what they might be afraid of. We can help children prepare for the deployment, but in the end, we must often live in the moment with them. If one thing is predictable when it comes to children and deployment, it is that children and deployment are highly unpredictable.

Stop, Look, and Listen

Active listening is important no matter what your child's age. Often you must listen "between the lines" as your children are talking. Helping them express their thoughts, feelings, and concerns throughout the entire deployment process is healthy. Acknowledging their feelings and then reassuring them that both their parents love them can bring them comfort.

A younger child who can't talk yet or is unable to put his thoughts and fears into words will instead give you clues by his behavior. You can read your child better than anyone, so it's up to you to start the conversations and give the attention and affection that will reassure your child.

Before Your Sailor or Marine Leaves

Even before a Sailor or Marine parent leaves, some children start to behave differently— some children act out, while others withdraw. They may become anxious at the thought of their parent leaving, and develop unfounded fears. Older children who can understand more of the current events that affect our military (and, by default, them) may develop fears that are not unfounded, and cannot easily be put to rest.

Children have an uncanny habit of asking profound questions that have no easy answers. Questions dealing with life, death, and a hundred "what ifs" in between can really test your parenting skills, but take the time to answer them truthfully and matter-of-factly. When answering, consider your childs age, emotional maturity, and ability to process tough issues. Give enough information to satisfy their questions, but be careful not to bring up additional issues or subjects they may not be ready to know.

As the deployment draws near and the day of departure approaches, some children will become more sensitive and need to be close to their parents, so be patient if they seem needy or clingy. Others may withdraw, become quiet, and separate themselves, so be ready to spend extra quiet time alone with them if they don't want to join the family group.

In one family's experience with a deployment, some of the children expressed love and concern for the departing parent, while their 5-year-old sister acted as if the parent was merely going to the Commissary for milk. The next morning, when still half asleep, the little girl asked for her daddy. Her mother explained that Daddy had left the day before.

The little girl sleepily said she missed her daddy and didn't want him to leave. The mother took the opportunity to tell her daughter that she missed Daddy too (validating the little girl's feelings), and that he would be home when they got to the big heart circled on the calendar (reassuring that all would be well). The childs detachment had only been a coping mechanism to help her deal with what she could not comprehend— her home without her daddy for six months.

In the Beginning

As the deployment begins, the whole family works to establish the new routine. Children may test the parent left behind to find out what they can get away with. Everyone is readjusting to help fill the empty space left by their Sailor or Marine. It's important to establish structure and routine as soon as possible. Don't be surprised if some of the kids become melancholy, and their grades begin to slip. Other children may display defiance and belligerence. Younger children may regress back to bedwetting or "accidents." Clearly defined limits will give children a feeling of security at a time when they may feel the most insecure but can't express it in words.

During the Deployment

Life will settle down into some semblance of routine and normalcy. Don't get too comfortable, though. Someone forgot to tell the children that this is the time to stabilize and hit their stride. Most of the time things do settle down, but keep watching for signs of distress in their behavior and attitude. If you feel your children are having more difficulty adjusting than you think is normal, consult the counselors at your Fleet and Family Service Center (FFSC) or the Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS).

Your Sailor or Marine Is Coming Home

As homecoming approaches, don't be tempted to let things slide. The reunion can be as unsettling for children as the departure. Don't worry that all the projects were not accomplished or that you didn't meet the goals you may have set. Your children will take their cue from you. Happy anticipation is better than stressful worry about the fast-approaching reunion.

Welcome Back

If you thought the roller-coaster ride had stopped the day the ship pulled in, then you're in for a surprise. There will be a honeymoon period, but then the reorganizing of the family begins. The children may resent being disciplined by their returned parent and react in various ways. They may need time to adjust to having to answer to two "big people".

Children may have great anxiety when the Sailor or Marine first returns to duty. They need to be reassured that they will see their parent again that evening. Other children may not be able to wait for their Sailor or Marine to go back to work because their routine has been upset once again.

Communication helps children deal with their feelings when it comes to deployment and the reunion. Encouraging your children to talk (and really listening to them thoughtfully) will help you help them with those sudden dips and turns.

The parent at home is the emotional rudder that steers the family through the deployment. You have a great effect on how your children handle life in the Navy or Marine Corps, and how well they handle deployments. If they know you're there beside them on that roller coaster, they won't be as afraid the next time they have to take that first big hill.