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What your school-age child knows – and needs to know – when someone in the family is deployed
Grade-school kids are deeply affected when a parent or close relative goes to war. Because 5- to 8-year-olds can understand that war involves fighting and dying, they'll worry about their loved one's safety. "The most vulnerable ages are 6 to about 10," says James Garbarino, codirector of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University and author of Parents Under Siege. "That's when children have more independent access to information, because they're out of the home and in school. And the simple reassurances that work for toddlers and preschoolers are transparent to them. But their brains aren't physically mature enough yet to manage fear."
Anxiety may show up in different ways. Your child might act younger than usual, have trouble sleeping or problems concentrating in school, or complain of stomachaches. What he needs most now is reassurance that he's safe and the consistency of everyday routines.
If you're the parent remaining at home, you have the challenge of helping your child feel secure when you may be feeling very insecure yourself. Remember that limiting access to scary news reports, sticking to regular schedules, and finding concrete ways to help those directly affected by war will comfort you as well as your child.
How to begin talking to your school-age kid about a deployment
Prepare yourself. It may be very difficult to manage your own fears and sadness, but keep in mind that your child will take his cues from you. Five- to 8-year-olds understand the concept of war and will want to talk about it. "They'll want to hear how others feel, and they'll feel a wider range of feelings themselves," says Judith Myers-Walls, associate professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University and an expert on talking to children about war. You don't want to pretend that nothing is wrong, but you also don't want to become so upset that your child feels he needs to take care of you. Take time alone with your partner, other relatives, or close friends to express your feelings and get support so you can communicate more calmly to your child about what's going to happen.
A school-age child is likely to have questions and understand that people have opinions about war, so "decide ahead of time what you feel about the conflict," says Myers-Walls.
Break the news in bites. Five- to 8-year-olds can be given some time to prepare for a deployment – from weeks to months, says Major Keith M. Lemmon, a pediatrician at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, Washington, and the father of three. "Deliver the message that Mom or Dad will be going away to do a very important job – a critically important job for the protection of our country," Lemmon advises. Then let your child's questions guide the discussion.
When Lea-Ellen Whitt's husband was deployed, the Manchester, Tennessee, mom kept the explanation for her kids, now 6 and 10, to the point: "I told them that Dad is working far away to help the kids there live safely."
Don't make promises you can't keep. Resist the urge to say things like "Don't worry. Mommy will be home in a few months." Grade-school kids can see through a parent's attempt to falsely reassure. Plus, if Mommy ends up being redeployed and doesn't come home as planned, it could damage the trust between you. Instead, give more realistic and timeless words: "No matter what, I love you and Daddy loves you. We'll do everything we can to keep you safe." Reassure your child that he's in no danger, and that you and the rest of the family are safe, too. The active-duty parent can also remind your child how much she'll be thinking about him and missing him every day.
Comfort nonverbally as well. Some of your best clues about your child's anxiety level will come nonverbally – through aggressive play, disrupted sleep or nightmares, or a change in eating patterns, for example. It's important to respond to him nonverbally as well. If he seems worried, give him extra hugs and kisses. Encourage him to sleep with his favorite toy or with a night-light on if he wants to, or to hop in your bed even if he stopped doing so years ago.
Make a plan to stay connected. Talk about how you'll continue to communicate through phone calls, email, and letters – even webcams if that's a possibility. Myers-Walls suggests making an audio or videotape of the departing parent reading a favorite bedtime story so it can be replayed in her absence. Once the deployed parent has gone, set aside time regularly to write cards or letters, take photos, make videos, and create care packages to send to your loved one. Many military families use a calendar to mark the days that someone is away.
Lea-Ellen Whitt created what she called "Daddy Dollies" – dolls made with uniform fabric and an ironed-on image of Daddy's face. "My kids have loved these every time he's been deployed," she says. "This way they have Daddy with them when we go places, and they talk to him when they feel upset or get a hug when they need one."
Be ready to revisit the topic again and again. At this age, your child is very curious, and he'll pick up bits of information from adults, other kids, and the news – then he'll come to you with questions. "School-age kids may want to know where the country is, what people eat, what the weather's like," says Myers-Walls. Use books, magazines, and the Internet to satisfy their curiosity. You can even explain that the active-duty parent is on an adventure and turn the discussion into a fun activity, says Lemmon.
Make contact with your child's school. Before and during a deployment, talk to your child's teachers, especially if you don't live on a military base and your child doesn't have friends in similar situations. Teachers can be on the lookout for signs of distress, such as aggressive play, withdrawal, or sadness expressed in drawings. Your child might also ask questions in school that he doesn't ask at home. It's important for teachers not to impose their opinion or ask inappropriate questions. "A well-meaning teacher took it upon herself to ask my children if they were worried that my husband would get hurt or die," Whitt says, forcing her to do damage control and explain that her husband was doing his best to make sure he and his fellow soldiers didn't get hurt.
Filter war news. It may be impossible to protect your school-age kid from the scary images and details about an ongoing conflict. Even if you keep your TV free of endless loops of explosions or bombed-out streets, grade-schoolers will pick up snippets here and there and want to know more. You don't want to pretend the war isn't happening or hop up and turn off the TV at the slightest mention of war – it will give your child the impression it's not okay to talk about it. Myers-Walls suggests screening some news from print media to share. If your child inadvertently overhears something disturbing on the radio, for example, discuss it. "You may want to wait until the end of a sentence, turn it off, and say, 'What do you think about that?'" she advises. And if there's uplifting news, feel free to share that with your child, says Lemmon.
Remember that your child may not understand as much as he seems to. Five- to 8-year-olds often appear to be more sophisticated than they really are. "If a child living in a desert community – say, in Arizona – sees pictures of bombs falling in Baghdad, he might not entirely understand that the TV images of Iraq are a long way away from his home," says Garbarino. Try to gently probe his understanding of current events so you can clear up any misconceptions.
Tell him adults are working to keep him safe. It's sometimes hard to be reassuring in the face of our own anxieties about an ongoing war. But you can tell your child (and remind yourself) that lots of people – from the government to our troops to the local police – are working to keep us safe. Talk about the ways that everyone is working to protect us.
Help him take concrete action. For many 5- to 8-year-olds, pitching in for the cause is extremely therapeutic. Your child may want to write a letter of thanks to the troops or sell lemonade and send the proceeds to a humanitarian organization. While Whitt's husband was in Afghanistan, she and her children collected soccer gear to ship to boys in the country. "We always send care packages, but the kids were excited to be able to help the kids there," she says.
Answers to common questions about going to war
"What's happening?" Give your child the basic facts: "There's a leader in another country who our leaders don't trust. We're asking him to turn over all his weapons, and if he doesn't cooperate our soldiers may have to go there to take them from him." Ask if he has any questions. The older he is, the more details he'll want. Keep your answers honest but to the point.
"Why did people die?" Once your child has a grasp on the "whats," expect a lot of "why" questions, such as, "Why did the soldiers die?" and "Why can't they just put that bad guy in jail?" Keep your answers straightforward: "The soldiers died because their plane was shot down by the soldiers they were fighting against." With more complicated – and fraught – questions about the political situation and the morality of war, let your own convictions be your guide. Just remember to keep your answers simple and to respond to the specific question asked.
"Will Daddy die?" It's hard to deflect this question when a family member is truly in harm's way. Rather than brush off his concerns with bland – and perhaps dishonest – reassurances, acknowledge your child's very real fears. "You're worried that Dad might get hurt while he's helping our troops, aren't you?" You might say. "We all are, but he's with a lot of men and women whose job is to protect each other. We're praying that he comes home safe as soon as his job is done."
"Will we get hurt?" In the face of war, children of all ages worry about immediate risk to themselves and their loved ones. They may ask, "If their country is fighting ours, would they shoot kids, too?" "Will they drop a bomb on our house?" "You don't have to go and fight them, right?" "Are Grandma and Grandpa okay?" Assure your child that, as disturbing as these events are, they're very far away and won't involve him. "The fighting is happening on the other side of the world, so you don't have to worry about bombs or anyone shooting you. I'm staying here with you – our lives aren't going to change. Grandma and Grandpa are fine, too. They live far away from where the war is happening. Do you want to call them on the phone right now and say hi?"
"Are there monsters under my bed?" Even older kids may become newly afraid of strangers, monsters, darkness, or other unknowns. After all, these phantoms are easier to contemplate than the concept of war. Reassure your child: "No, there are no monsters under your bed or anywhere else. Let's look together." You don't need to explain anything about real-world "monsters." Your child just wants you to reassure him that he'll be safe in his own bed tonight.
Maintain basic routines. The stress of a separation can disrupt family schedules. But routines make kids feel safe. As much as possible, continue the same mealtimes, bedtimes, sports, and playdates for your child. "Reassure him with familiarity whenever you can," says Myers-Walls.
Read books designed for grade-schoolers together, such as My Daddy Is a Soldier and My Mommy Is an Airman.
Watch a video created for elementary-age military kids, Mr. Poe & Friends, which you can download here.
Visit helpful sites like one set up by the Military Child Education Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for military kids in the school system, and the American Academy of Pediatrics Military Child Support site. Also check out the National Military Family Association site, which offers information about a summer camp program, Operation Purple Camp.
Reach out to your community for support. Attend church or other spiritual services. Join support groups of military families, such as "family readiness groups" organized by the military.
Call on the Department of Defense's support system, MilitaryOneSource, a 24-hour service, if you need counseling or other support.