Deployment is inevitable for most military members, but even thought the active duty member and their spouse may understand this, the young children in the family may not. This is not to say that a deployment will be too much to handle or that the child will not be able to cope, but when a parent is deployed it is usually a negative experience for the child.
Very young children lack the cognitive ability to understand how when someone “goes away” that they are just somewhere else. The remaining parent or guardian can try to explain the absence but during this stage in ego development if the child can’t see you then you don’t exist anymore. Don’t worry; strangely enough this means the child will be better at coping than most children. They will remember the absent parent and when the military member returns they may be shy and slow to greet you, or they may rush into your arms and knock you over. During this age children bounce back quicker than the rest of us and they will probably be back to the way they were before the deployment.
School age children have stronger and more varied reactions. They may feel abandoned. They may be worried about the military member. They may go through a grieving process. Then there are those that, if the deployed parent was the disciplinarian, may actually be happy to see that parent go but this usually doesn’t happen until the teenage years. Some children may become sullen and withdrawn. They may fall behind in school, lose interest in activities, and there may be a change in appetite. This is an extreme example. For the most part children will be sad or angry, but they will be able to work through their feelings.
Most military children, especially school aged children, have good coping skills. They understand at an early age what is normal for their family. If they grew up in the military, seeing a parent or parents deploy before, they will understand that it will be fine and that one day their family will be whole again. They will understand that the parent will return. This does not mean they won’t miss their deployed parent. Don’t be surprised if they go through the same grieving process during every deployment. When a parent is gone it is normal for a child to miss them. It is when there are personality changes in the child that there may be a problem.
Military children experience a lot in their young lives. One of the more difficult experiences is when someone in the family is deployed. Even though each child will have a different way of reacting, they will eventually develop coping skills that will follow them throughout their lives. Just be aware of what your child is going through and be prepared to come to the aid of your child if they need it.