Parents Help Children Prepare for Deployments
By Air Force Staff Sgt. Vanessa Young
Defense Media Activity
SAN ANTONIO, May 2, 2011 When Erin Hirvela was 2, her parents, Air Force Master Sgts. Gus and Danielle Hirvela, enlisted Sesame Street’s Elmo to help their daughter understand why her daddy was going away for a while.
For service members and their families, preparing for an upcoming deployment is another of the many challenges unique to military life.
“When parents are having a conversation about their deployment with their child, they should be as genuine as they can, but filter their communication to the degree that’s appropriate for the age of their child,” said Kristy Hagar, a child psychologist who has been working with children, adolescents, and young adults for 18 years.
“Children can get upset, because their lives were stable and predictable, and now with a parent or both parents leaving, there’s going to be change,” Hagar said. “Children are going to deal with change in their lives no matter what, so anything you can do proactively ahead of time where kids can feel like they are involved and they are being asked to help prepare for this shift, helps in the long run.”
The Hirvelas prepared for Erin’s first deployment experience with a Sesame Street DVD they picked up at the base library.
“It was the one where Elmo explained the military and deployments,” Danielle said. “One of the sayings they use in the video that stood out to us was that Mommy and Daddy are ‘helping people.’”
Today, both Hirvelas are deployed, and they said they still use that saying from the video to help 6-year-old Erin understand why they left.
“When Gus left, we told Erin that Daddy had to go help people, and that he would be home before she knew,” she said. “We tried to keep a positive spin on everything. So when we discussed Mommy leaving and Aunt Gail coming, we mentioned how she was going to ‘party like a rock star’ and be a huge help for [her little brother] Jacob.”
The level of honesty and the method of communication depend a lot on what the parent feels comfortable with, but they also need to recognize how they present themselves, Hagar said.
Children can pick up on their parent’s emotions and stress, even when the parent is saying everything is going to be fine, she said. The children are looking at the parent and thinking, ‘Well, they are saying that they are fine, but I’m getting vibes that they feel nervous.’
That can be more destructive and more anxiety-provoking in children than being able to model your feelings and saying, “You know what? I’m kind of scared, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to be as safe as I can be, and I’m going to be with all of the airmen, and we are going to do our best over there,” Hagar said.
“Come up with things that make them at ease and at peace as well,” she added.
Letting children know that they can talk about their fears and worries when preparing for a deployment helps them prepare for stressful situations in the future, Hagar said. Children can learn from that open dialogue, she added, because it sets up a problem-solving modeland helps them think, ‘Well, I don’t really know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to do this and this, and this is what I’m thinking, and this is what helps me feel better.’
Danielle said they told Erin about the upcoming deployments as soon as they knew.
“We talked about it a lot, but like most kids, it didn’t really sink in until it got closer to the day he and I both left,” she said. “Each situation is different, and each kid is different, but the thing that has worked for us is being honest and putting a positive spin on everything as best as we could. I couldn’t wear my emotions on my sleeve, and I had to be strong, hoping Erin would see that and do the same.”
For younger kids, around ages 5 and below, parents sometimes have to play a role, Hagar said. For example, she explained, if you and your child both see a large dog, you would just have to react calmly and soothe the child, versus running away screaming, because you don’t want to set that example for that child. The same applies to deployments, she added, and recognizing how you present yourself and how you deal with your worries and fears sets an example for the child to follow.
School-age children ages 5 through 12 have a greater awareness of a parent being gone, Hagar said. They are involved in a lot more activities, and sometimes that tends to serve as a reminder: ‘Oh, Dad’s not going to be here to see my soccer game.’ Maintaining proactive strategies to stay connected can make the separation easier on children, she said.
Maybe Dad couldn’t come to the soccer game, she explained, but you all can plan to film it and send it to him, she said. She recommended asking children how they want to stay connected, or let them pick out the pictures to send, noting that getting them involved gives them responsibility in collaborating as a family on how to solve the issue of Mom or Dad not being there.
Older children, ages 12 and older, may be less likely to reach out to a parent or caregiver to talk about an upcoming deployment, Hagar said.
“Because of adolescence and all the things that go along with adolescence, it’s also not uncommon for children in this age group to not want to talk,” she said. “Sitting them down to talk about their feelings may not be an effective strategy, but let them know if they have any questions about the deployment, they should let you know, and leave it at that.
“You’re opening a door for dialogue and letting them know if they want to talk, they can, and if they want to ask questions, they can,” she continued, “so they know the deployment is not some ‘elephant in the room’ that no one can talk about. A lot of teenagers will say, ‘No, I’m fine,’ but at least the door is open.”
Some older children may have a greater understanding and can recognize where their parent may be going and the danger that’s involved, as opposed to a younger child, who just realizes that Mom or Dad isn’t there to tuck them in at night, Hagar said.
Parents of children of different age groups need to prepare and adapt their filter for each child, she added, reflecting on what their child potentially could ask them and how they are going to respond.
Information on helping children deal with deployments is available at the Military OneSource website.