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Military Separation: Advice from Moms

Kelly in Albuquerque
This happened to my family. I was gone for three months and my husband had to leave for a month. So we had to try to explain where Mommy was, and then Daddy. We just showed our son a lot of pictures, and we talked to him. When I got back, it was hard for him to leave my side. Just keep them close and tell them what is going on. Send them tapes, pictures, etc., while you’re away. The military can help with video teleconferences—you can call home for free.

Micky in New York
Kids are smarter than we think. The first thing to do is not to lie to them. Tell them where you are going and what you're going to do—that you'll be defending the country. Then give him or her something special, like a picture or a locket, that will let them feel you're close.

Kelly in Longmont
The parent(s) could write a few letters before leaving so the other parent or guardian can read the letters to the child. Keep several family pictures around of the loved one with the child. I also think the parent who is away needs to write to the child as much as possible.

Pamela in Columbia
I have a 2-year-old and my husband had to go away on a trip. When our son asked about Daddy, I told him that he will be back and that Daddy loves him. I tried to encourage my child to draw pictures for his father and help him smile more.

Vicki in Lake Odessa
Make a video of the parent leaving so the child can watch it and see them whenever they want. Also, you could make a voice recording of the parent reading a book to their child or singing a favorite song.

Kenneth N. Condrell, Ph.D.
Millions of children are affected by their parents’ military commitment. Half of today’s soldiers are married with children. And many parents who signed up to be “weekend warriors” with the Reserves have been called upon to serve as full-time soldiers.

Obviously, this puts an incredible burden on families. Babies and toddlers can’t understand the situation; the only reality they know exists within their own homes, where they thrive on love, nurturing and play. Consequently, for a child this young to flourish in a parent’s absence, he must continue to be nurtured.

If his mom is called away for military duty, for example, the child’s father needs to spend extra time with his little one beyond the routine activities of childcare. With his wife gone he becomes, in effect, two parents in one. Also, a female family member or close friend should spend some time each day “substituting” for the child’s mother. Of course, I understand that the latter scenario is not always doable. But it’s an important strategy to help young children cope, and it should be a priority when mom has been separated from a baby or toddler.

And how will that child react when his parent returns? It’s hard to predict. He may act like the parent’s a stranger, or he may even act angry. Fearing that his mom or dad will leave again, he may decide to keep his distance. On the other hand, he could reconnect in as little as a few days. If parents don’t think the reunion is progressing well, they shouldn’t hesitate to seek help from a child psychologist.

Older children—preschoolers and elementary school-age kids—take their lead from the parent or caretaker they live with. That’s why it’s crucial to make kids this age feel safe and optimistic. To that end, I recommend the following:
  • Include the absent parent in bedtime prayers.
  • Keep connected with other families in the same situation.
  • Spend extra time with relatives.
  • Tell favorite stories about mom or dad to help your child feel close to that parent while he or she is away.
  • Create care packages together to send overseas.
  • Comfort children when they break down, and never discourage them from expressing themselves.
  • Make sure your child understands that your spouse’s departure is temporary, and that the family will be together again.

  • For families with children of different ages, it’s helpful to create a support network of others in the same situation. Communicate with these families by phone and e-mail, and set up times to meet. That way you can share ideas that will help you and your kids cope with the stress.

    Within your own family, schedule a monthly meeting, which gives you a chance to show your support for your children and reassure them that you’ll get through this challenging time together.

    Finally, make it a point to plan fun family events. After all, there’s no better way to relieve anxiety than by doing something you all enjoy.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education