Effects of Military Deployment on Preschool Children and Tips to Help Support Them and Their Family

The Department of Defense reports that approximately 2 million children in the United States are in a military family and approximately 200,000 children have a parent at war at any given time.

Many military families seemingly take military deployment as a given and in stride. Many families do not, especially when you add a preschooler to that mix. Preschoolers do not know how to take a parent being away for extended periods of time “in stride.”

Preschool children’s lives are based on daily routines and it is how they “tell time.” When they brush their teeth at night, for example, they know what comes next- perhaps a story or prayer with a parent and then time for bed. If you try to tuck a preschooler into bed who is used to this type of routine, they will be confused and the conversation may be something like:

Parent: “Time for bed! Hop under the covers.”

Preschooler: “It’s not bed time yet!”

Parent: “Yes it is. It’s 7:30.”

Preschooler: “No, it’s not! It’s not bed time!”

Parent: (pointing at clock), “Sweetie, it really is 7:30. It’s time for bed.”

Preschooler: “But I didn’t brush my teeth!”

They do not necessarily want to brush their teeth for the dental hygiene benefits! They want to brush their teeth because that is their routine; it is how they know it is bed time.

With a military parent deployed, you can imagine how many daily routines will now be different for your preschool student. This confusion may show itself in behavioral issues not typical for this child.

A research study on the effects of deployment on preschoolers (1) note hitting, biting and hyperactivity as the most reported behavioral changes. The children are reacting not only to a parent being away for an extended period, but also to the additional stress of the increased responsibilities on the parent not deployed. Preschoolers pick up on this stress naturally. They also will notice the reduced time spent with the parent still at home due to the parent’s increased responsibilities.

The American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Psychologists offered 5 pieces of advice for families to consider when one parent’s military deployment is nearing. I’ve added advice for strategies that we, as teachers and caregivers, can apply in our classrooms.

1. Stick with routines; maintain consistency.

Families should try their best to keep their daily routines (such as morning routines, bed times and daily chores) as consistent as possible as the deployment date nears.

Teachers should, as discussed above, keep routines the same. The consistency and predictability will help the preschooler feel more secure.

2. Communicate often and always.

Families: The Associations recommend that families share news, feelings and strategies to overcome sad feelings and to avoid minimizing what is happening. Children cannot tell time. The family can help the children have a visual time reminder by creating a countdown calendar to count the days until the parent leaves or comes home.

Teachers: Telling a child that Mommy or Daddy will be back soon will most likely not be understood by the preschooler. Their SOON and our SOON is very different. Find out from the parents when the deployed parent will return so that you can show the preschooler on a calendar should they ask when Mommy or Daddy are coming home.

3. Keep kids (and spouse) involved in healthy habits.

We all burn off stress and worry in our own ways! We may talk on the phone with friends, go to the gym or just tap our foot incessantly! Preschoolers need strategies to reduce stress also!

Families: Encourage the parent to include their preschooler on a daily walk to burn off any stress or anxiety together and for some nice together time.

Teachers: If you notice that this preschooler has a lot of energy at a certain time of day, they probably need to burn it off! Consider adding a music and movement, gross motor or outside time to your day for all the children during this time.

4. Adopt a good behavior plan.

Families should keep the same behavior expectations and consequences in place after a parent is deployed. Young children understand consistency. Letting unacceptable behaviors slide at home can allow those behaviors to become regular behaviors.

Teachers: As discussed above, it is so important to keep your routines and expectations the same before the deployment and after. Yes, be aware that this child is feeling angry and frustrated due to being separated from their parent. Do not, however, allow inappropriate behaviors to “slide” because you know where it’s coming from. It’s still not o.k. to hurt our friends or throw our toys. Be consistent with these expectations and redirect the child acting out. Let them know you understand that they are angry, however you cannot let them _________ (throw toys, push others, etc.).

5. Demonstrate and verbalize your love.

Families: The advice from the Associations for families here is “Hug long, hard and often!” The amount of stress the parent at home is under is tremendous. Their thoughts are in 19 different directions. Remind them to take a break and just be-read a story with their kids and take time for an extra hug!

Teachers: Reach out to families. Offer books or book lists to help with this time of separation for their children. Also, send cards to the parent at home to remind her or him that you are thinking of them!

Military deployment may be for several weeks or for a year. Regardless of the amount of time, remember that time is not concrete for preschool children. Even a week away from a parent can feel like an eternity to a child. Be aware of changes in behavior and keep the communication with parents open and constant!

1. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162(11):1009-1014.

A book list for children dealing with Military Deployment can be found on my website under Family Life

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