Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dealing with military deployment, and helping kids cope

The American Psychological Association estimates about 700,000 children under the age of 18 have a parent deployed overseas for military duty; according to the Department of Defense, more than 30,000 teenagers have at least one parent in the National Guard deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

I'm in awe of the way so many parents are coping, and with the stories I've found about kids who are dealing with their mom's or dad's deployment in inspiring and constructive ways.

Some teenagers are stepping in to fill their parents' shoes: Sixteen-year-old Tyler Dix tells CNN.com: "It's a lot of responsibility, but I don't really have a choice. My dad told me I am the man of the house, and I have to act like it." He takes his 9-year-old sister Tayana to her extracurricular activities each day, and is an emotional pillar for his 13-year-old brother, Tevin, when he misses dad.

Others are inspiring their peers -- and the rest of us: High school students Kaylei Deakin and Moranda Hern created the Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs (short for "battle dress uniforms") to help girls cope with their parents' deployments. They are trying to organize a conference, tentatively scheduled for March 2010 in California, for girls whose parents who have gone overseas to war.

"I hope The Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs will inspire other young people to look beyond themselves, to see a need and meet it," Hern told Lemondrop. "I created the Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs because I felt a need in my own life to connect with other military girls who understand my challenges, emotions and triumphs."

While having a parent in the military may force a teenager to grow up quickly or take on more responsibility, it presents some very different issues for younger children. When you're facing temporary single parenthood with little kids at home, just explaining the concept of deployment can be a struggle.

Phe, who is in the Reserves and has a toddler daughter, expects to be deployed sometime before her daughter turns 3. She offered up plenty of sage advice in a comment over at Child Caring; you can click through to read all of her advice, but here is some of it in a nutshell:

Consider the Sesame Street "Talk, Listen, Connect" program to help both parent and toddler understand and try to cope.

Her installation makes "Parent Pillows" for young kids. "They take a photo of the deploying airman and make it into a pillowcase so that the child can snuggle their deployed parents' likeness," she writes. (With iron-on transfers available at most craft stores, this is something you can try at home, too.)

Use the resources that are available to you. For instance: The Department of Defense will pay for "respite" daycare -- up to 16 hours a week -- for the parent left behind to have some child-free downtime. Join your local VFW to connect with others who understand what you're going through. If you live close to a military installation, exercise your dependent privileges and find out what activities you can join -- if your spouse is Guard or Reserve and deployed, you're entitled to use all base privileges and attend activities. Most active-duty bases have a wide range of programs for toddlers to teens, including daycare, after-school programs, youth centers, and organized outings, she says.

Talk honestly with your kids, and do not glue yourself to news of the war. It's generally incomplete and/or incorrect reporting, and it will only cause more worry and stress that you don't need. But remember that your spouse may not be able to put your mind at ease and tell you what it's really like. A lot is classified and they can't talk about it. So do yourself a favor and turn off CNN. You won't get the real and correct and full picture from watching it.

I'm a big fan of Asha Dornfest's Parent Hacks, and that's where I read about a slide show put together by Kristen Chase of Cool Mom Picks. Her husband, a commercial pilot, has been deployed for two months to Afghanistan. Her slide show is simple and direct without being scary. "We've always taken an honest approach with the kids when it comes to telling them about his whereabouts, so we weren't looking to try to avoid anything," she writes. "But discussions about planes and war are difficult for anyone, let alone a two- and five year-old."

Here's her slideshow:

Military moms and dads, how do handle deployment? Any single parents with tips to share with other moms and dads who are flying solo?

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