Staying connected during deployment is essential. If we don’t feel supported, long separations can be overwhelming. They can take a toll on your relationship with your spouse and even how well you are able to parent your children. But deployments don’t have to be that way.

Staying close when your spouse is away isn’t easy, but by keeping in mind a few guidelines, you can successfully manage a demanding long-distance relationship and hopefully avoid some common deployment pitfalls. While communication challenges are different for each military family, depending on factors such as mission, rank, and location, a few best practices apply to most situations.

Related: Getting Kids Ready for a Deployment

When to talk

Dr. Ellen Devoe, principal investigator for the program Strong Families Strong Forces, recommends avoiding regularly scheduled talk times. Although setting a scheduled time to talk can be comforting, the pros do not outweigh the cons. For example, if you’re used to talking every Friday at 8pm, but there’s a day when your deployed spouse can’t call at that time, you may panic and fear the worst, and vice versa. Instead, take a moment during each conversation to give a flexible ballpark estimate for when you might talk next.

Also, call, text, or email as often as possible, but do not commit to or expect any single pattern of communication. One way to communicate that is reliable and still makes even the most digitally inclined person’s day is snail mail. When the opportunity to talk does not exist, the chance to write may still.

What to share

Loose lips sink ships. Consequently, service members will be instructed to observe a variety of information security protocols when communicating with family and friends back home. Although the same level of information security does not exist at home, families may also want to establish some boundaries regarding how much info they share with the service member.

Sharing every detail about what’s happening at home may make your deployed spouse feel overwhelmed, distracted, and even helpless. It’s important to be thoughtful about what details to share and what to wait on. Writing down things that happen and then sharing them with your spouse when he or she returns is one method to help children and parents at home process what’s happening without burdening him in the moment.

Also, take full advantage of all your support groups. Share information and vent to your family and friends. Give those around you a chance to help you out in any way they can.

Other ways to stay connected

Emails, phone calls, and Skype sessions can boost morale during a long separation, but these forms of communication may not happen regularly, so it’s helpful to have some back up options:

  • Your spouse can record video messages for the kids to watch when they’re missing mom or dad.
  • For young children, a recording of their parent reading their favorite bedtime story can be a special addition to the nightly bedtime routine.
  • Fill a jar with Hershey’s Kisses marking each day mom or dad is away, and let your child have one a day. Besides being a treat, this also gives kids a visual reminder of how many days are left.
  • Take pictures of your child and send them to your spouse. Photos documenting the Hershey’s Kisses countdown could be one fun option. Don’t forget to include yourself in some of the pictures so your spouse gets to see you, too!

Communicating with children

Children react to deployment in a variety of ways. Pay attention to any emotional or behavioral changes that you notice during deployment. Some children may act out or revert back to past behavior as a way of showing sadness or anxiety. Changes in eating or sleeping patterns may be signs of stress.

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

To support your child during deployment, be warm and loving, and try to stick to the same routines. This will help your child feel safe and secure. Communicate openly about any fears and anxieties that your child has as they arise. Remember to reinforce the positive and important work that your kids’ deployed parent is doing to help them understand why mom or dad is away.

You can also explore the growing number of resources available on the web to help military families communicate with their children during deployment. A couple of websites that come highly recommended are Zero to Three and Military One Source.

Treat yourself

Life at home during a deployment presents unique challenges for military spouses. Managing work and household responsibilities, caring for children, and coping with concerns about your spouse may leave you with little time to take care of yourself.

As the National Military Family Association notes, children can sense if you are feeling overwhelmed, and their well-being may be directly impacted by the stress of their caregiver. To create a calming environment during deployment, it’s important to treat yourself to something special on a regular basis. Schedule a night out with family or friends, set aside some time to relax with a book or hobby, or take a trip to the mall or a spa.

While your daily focus will likely center on your family, don’t lose sight of your own needs. When you’re on an airplane, you’re told to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child. You can’t take care of children unless you are taking care of yourself. The same is true during deployment. By taking care of yourself, you are better equipped to support your family.

No two deployments are the same. Whether your spouse is stationed on a submarine that receives email messages once a month or an Army base with great internet connectivity, it takes work to keep in touch. But with flexibility and understanding your efforts will pay off—your kids will feel supported, you’ll feel close to your spouse, and your family will stay strong.

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