Preparing for deployment can be a stressful and overwhelming time for military families. The anticipation that they will be separated puts service members and their loved ones on edge. Children can sense the tension, and knowing that their parents feel stressed or unhappy can make them upset, too.

To help kids feel secure, it is important to communicate openly in the days and weeks leading up to deployment. Parents can set the right tone through caring, frequent, and honest communication.

As you prepare to discuss the deployment with your children, you may be wondering when and how much to tell your kids. Here are some tips to get you started.

When to bring it up

When to tell children about the upcoming deployment will depend on the age and developmental level of each child.

  • You may want to start discussing the deployment with school-aged children as soon as you receive the information yourself. Allowing for plenty of time to talk about it can help kids—and adults—get used to the idea. It also gives families the opportunity to reassure children over any concerns they might have.
  • For younger children who don’t have a clear concept of time, you may choose to wait until a few weeks prior to deployment. Describing their family’s experience preparing a young toddler for deployment, Brooke Bland noted, “My daughter’s concept of time was quite loose, so 2 weeks or 2 months didn’t hold much weight.” A couple of days before her father got underway on his ship, they would talk about how Daddy had to go to work for a long time and sleep over for many nights. Their daughter understood the concept of her father sleeping on the ship since he slept on the ship once a week while on duty.

By being thoughtful and attentive to each child’s stage of understanding, you can decide when is best to share the news.

What to say

When deciding how much to share with your children, it is best to be direct about the deployment, but you don’t have to share every detail. Here are some guidelines:

  • Keep in mind that children can sense when they are not being told the truth. Some kids may also imagine a situation worse than the reality.
  • Ways of making the deployment seem less abstract, such as finding the location of your deployment on a map or globe, help prevent anxiety.
  • Children may understand that there are dangerous aspects of the deployment, so it’s important for the service member to explain that they will do everything they can to stay safe while they are away.

Dr. Ellen Devoe, Associate Professor at Boston University School of Social Work and principal investigator for the program Strong Families Strong Forces, recommends that service members give their children two messages prior to deployment:

  • Tell your children that you have an important job to do—a job that’s so important that you are going to make the sacrifice to be away from your family for a certain amount of time. For example kids might like hearing that you’re helping the children of Afghanistan (or some other mission that applies to your situation).
  • Tell your children that they are just as important as your job. You love them, you will miss them, and you’ll be thinking about them while you are gone. Reassure them that their mom/dad/guardian is going to make sure that they are safe while you are gone.

Dr. Devoe has found that families often give the first message but not the second. Families overemphasize the importance of the job as a way of explaining the separation. This leaves some kids to wonder why the children of Afghanistan are more important than they are.

Take time to listen

After sharing the news of your deployment with your children, it is important to hear their feelings and thoughts. Sometimes parents treat the discussion as if it is unidirectional. Whether it happens in your initial deployment discussion or days or even weeks later, it is essential for each child to have his or her feelings about the deployment heard. While it is tempting to fall back onto stereotypes of military families taking everything in stride with a stiff upper lip, children will respond in a healthier way if you are tolerant of their feelings, compassionate, and allow for discussion of apprehensions and fears. Not that you should dwell on their sadness or fears, but it is important for children to be able to speak freely and share their thoughts unfiltered by their parents’ expectations.

Related: Tips for Helping Military Children Cope Healthily With a Parent’s Deployment

Make a plan

For some families, a deployment may mean that older children have more responsibilities, such as babysitting younger children and doing more household chores. Anticipating this increase in responsibility may cause some children to feel concerned and overwhelmed. You should discuss how responsibilities will be divided up and what the expectations are for each member of the family during deployment. Taking time now to paint a clear picture of how tasks will be accomplished will prevent arguments from arising later, when everyone may be under pressure. The whole family will be making sacrifices during deployment, and it is important for children to be prepared for these changes ahead of time.

Related: Staying Close During Deployment

Have fun before you go

Once you’ve digested the news as a family and made a plan for handling responsibilities when one parent is away, don’t forget to spend some quality time together. It can be tough to find time for the family as the work tempo tends to increase in the days leading to deployment. But enjoying some fun-filled outings together will strengthen family bonds. Children can reflect on these fun times when you are gone and look forward to future outings when you return.

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