When Mom or Dad Is Deployed for the Holidays

When Mom or Dad Is Deployed for the Holidays

military dad hugging daughter

Across the states in our diverse country, the holidays are a time for family—but we know that not all military families are able to enjoy the festivities together. Being away from loved ones for family traditions and special events (or, anytime, honestly) is one of many sacrifices those in the armed services and their families make to serve our country, and it’s one that can be particularly tough for children to grapple with.

“It might seem like a good idea to pretend that everything’s going to be normal or to avoid telling your daughter that her parent will not be present for the holiday until the very last minute—but of course everything isn’t normal, and children often deal best with change if they’re given time to think about and process an upcoming event,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. Granted, there’s not always a lot of notice before a deployment, but Dr. Bastiani Archibald suggests maximizing that time of adjustment for your girl by making her aware of a parent’s upcoming absence as soon as possible and talking about it regularly.

Be honest about the fact that one of you will be away for an extended period and that you won’t be able to be together to celebrate the holidays like you usually do. She might not understand what deployment is but might understand what a long trip for work means. “Focus on the good work her parent will be doing while away. Telling her that her mom or dad will be helping keep people safe or working to make people’s lives better will be more relatable to your daughter while also helping her understand the importance of this deployment, even during a time that’s so special to your family,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald.

Don’t shy away from discussing any worries or fears your daughter might have about her parent being deployed. She may be concerned that her mother or father will be hurt or not be able to return at all. Military.com advises addressing these concerns in an honest, age-appropriate way and offering reassurances while avoiding a promise that her parent will be absolutely fine.

Your daughter, especially if she’s younger, might still wonder why other kids get to celebrate with their whole family while she’s separated from someone she loves. In this case, you can explain that her parent has a special role in making the world a safer place, and that sometimes means having to travel to faraway places even when they’d love to be home with her. Go ahead and acknowledge that it’s hard on you, too! Sometimes it can be useful to give more tangible examples to help younger children understand—just like a superhero she might know from a book or a movie, her mom or dad is making the world safer for everyone.

And come up with a game plan for when times get tough and your daughter could really use a hug from mom or dad who’s far away. “When my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, we got what we called ‘daddy blankets’ for the kids,” recalls Sara Holland, a former Army Major whose husband was also a member of the armed services. “We got blankets for the kids, and then their dad explained to them before he left that any time they felt lonely and missed their daddy, they could just wrap themselves up in [the blanket] and know he was thinking of them. It was a real comfort. Years later, when I prepared to deploy, we got fleece pillowcases embroidered with family nicknames so the kids would have ‘mommy pillows’ too.” The Holland family also bought matching sets of twin-sized sheets so their son and his dad could “match” across the miles. “All the dads in Afghanistan had sheet sets covered in their kids’ favorite action figure or unicorns or whatever the big thing was. It was comforting for kids to see that their mom or dad was sleeping on the same pillowcase every night that they were, and I think it gives those who are far away from home a sense of connection to their children as well.” 

Even if you think your loved one might be home in time for the holidays (or on any specific date), promising when your girl’s loved one will be back might not be the best idea, because return dates can change depending on circumstances often outside a service member’s control. “Try to be relatively general about how long the parent will be away, and wait until a few days before the return—when you’re sure the date is unlikely to change—to let her know that her mother or father will be coming home,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. Young children can be literal, and otherwise, you run the risk of her feeling even more disappointed, confused, or even fearful if her parent is unable to return by a promised date.

Talk ahead of the departure about all the ways you will be able to keep in touch with the deployed parent and even celebrate the holidays long distance. Many families use Skype or other live video chat programs to keep close while separated, and in some situations—although definitely not all—it’s possible to set regular call times so parents and kids can connect. “Any kind of routine you can establish ahead of time, or early on in the deployment, will have a stabilizing and helpful effect on your child,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald.

As for specific tips to make the season a bit brighter for everyone when one of you is deployed, we’ve got a few of those, too.

1.     Talk about feelings.
According to experts at the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, even if she tells you she’s doing fine, your girl might regress a bit in behavior, be irritable, or act out in some way before and during the deployment. Make sure to check in with her, ask how she’s feeling, and remind her that she’s allowed to feel sad or miss her parent. Don’t worry that bringing this up will increase these types of emotions. Letting her know that feelings like these are only natural (perhaps sharing that you’ve been missing the loved one, as well) will help her feel more supported and less alone in her experience. The more she is encouraged to express herself and work through these emotions, the more she’ll be able to enjoy all the most delightful moments of her holiday.

2.     Keep a memory jar or journal.
Life’s little moments should be cherished and, of course, shared with the faraway parent on calls and chat sessions, but it can be hard—especially for children—to recall all that they wanted to talk about when the pressure’s on. Instead of relying on a child’s memory (or your own!) to keep track of all the updates you want to share, keep track of them using a special jar or journal. For younger children, set up a jar in a shared area of your house, and fill it with slips of paper detailing the most fun, exciting, or meaningful moments as they happen. Older children may prefer to keep a journal with notes of what they’d like to discuss. Then, during a call, the jar or journal can serve as a simple and fun way to make sure no memory—big or small—gets left out.

3.     Make the most magical care package.
Give your girl the gift of being able to design, decorate, and plan the contents of a special holiday care package for her parent. Depending on her age, she may need some help from you, but the point is to make it a personal project that she can feel proud of sending to her mother or father. Care packages don’t have to only include purchased treats—drawings or an essay your girl has brought home from school, a picture from an award ceremony at a Girl Scout troop meeting, or homemade crafts or cards are wonderful ideas, too. Check postal guidelines to make sure everything she wants to send is approved, and then get to gifting. When possible, planning a special Skype session in which her parent can open the package over video will make this an extra-special treat.

4.     Set up a surprise story time.
If your family usually reads a special holiday book at this time of year, get an extra copy and send it to the deployed parent to surprise your girl by reading it with her on an upcoming call. Your deployed loved one will treasure the chance to still be part of this wonderful tradition, and your daughter will be excited to have such a special moment with her mom or dad.

5.     Create a new tradition.
Although there’s no reason to skip the festive activities you normally do as a family, it might also be fun to try something new. Sign up to run a 5K with your girl, take a day trip to a nearby town to check out its holiday lights, or consider volunteering to serve a meal together at a local soup kitchen. An experience like this will give her something new to get excited about and something fun to update her deployed parent on once it’s time to catch up. Consider also doing something nice for other military families and those who are deployed. Sending holiday notes, prepaid phone cards, or other treats to military troops is a wonderful way to honor her parent’s service.

6.     Remember: the more the merrier.
When your family is short a member, especially at the holidays, it can feel a bit lonely. Fend off the blues by inviting neighbors, friends, or other community members who might not have many people to celebrate with to join you in your holiday traditions. Being generous by sharing your favorite festive experiences with others will make the season more special for everyone.

And although it’s important to look after your child’s needs during a tricky time like having a family member deployed at the holidays, it’s equally important to make sure you’re also taking care of yourself. Taking on the parenting in your family that’s normally handled by two people can be stressful—especially at the holidays when you want everything to be as perfect as possible. You’ll be more capable of making the holiday joyful for your girl if you’re well-rested and aren’t putting too much pressure on yourself.