Military life is often very stressful for kids.
Deployments are especially hard on families.
When a parent is absent, kids often feel lost and will find an alternative attachment to replace the missing parent. This makes reintegration that much more difficult.
John Bowlby believed that there are four distinguishing characteristics of attachment:
- Proximity Maintenance – The desire to be near the people we are attached to.
- Safe Haven – Returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat.
- Secure Base – The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.
- Separation Distress – Anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.
It’s the parent’s responsibility to maintain attachment to the child.
It often falls to the spouse at home to accomodate or encourage attachment opportunities with the deployed member, but that doesn’t maintain the strong attachment as well as when the absent parent makes the effort. Of course, this might take lots of advance planning if the deployment occurs in a place where communication is very limited or the locale and situation is very dangerous or top secret.
It’s very painful to return home from a lonely and dangerous deployment to children who act like they don’t remember, don’t care, or would rather he’d stayed away.
It’s difficult to make amends with or collect children who become peer-attached or other-attached during the parent’s absence.
A deployed service member wants a warm homecoming to the much-missed spouse, and that requires maintaining attachment throughout the absence. It’s no different, and perhaps more important, to maintain a strong attachment with children.
It’s different at every stage. Babies and toddlers feel uncomfortable. Young kids are often confused and scared. Tweens and teens feel diffident and abandoned.
Farewell and welcome ceremonies are important to set the stage for a difficult time for the whole family.
Explaining expectations to kids is important.
We accompany dad to the airplane gate to say goodbye and wave the plane away.
We try to plan something fun and distracting the afternoon Dad leaves.
We meet him again at the airplane gate to welcome him home. This is even more special now than before 9/11 when everyone could meet loved ones at gates.
We try to give Dad space when he returns home since he’s really tired and stressed from several days of travel.
Maintaining Attachment with Kids
Most children are very susceptible to sensory stimulation that reminds them of the absent parent. Even during very short separations, the familiarity of touch, voice, smell, and sight helps kids overcome their discomfort of absence.
Some useful techniques for parents to help their children bridge unavoidable separation include giving the child pictures or pillows of themselves, special jewelry or lockets to wear, notes to read or have read to them, scheduling phone, text, or video calls at appointed times, recordings of their voice on books, or with special songs or messages, something with their smell on it for the child to hold on to when apart – like a stuffed toy or blanket or Tshirt, gifts to be opened or delivered at special times.
I frequently showed my son a photo book when he was a baby during our first deployment. The kids often looked through photos of our lovely memories traveling and holidays and other events.
Another way of keeping connected is by giving a child a sense of where a parent is when not with her. When a parent is away on a trip, set something up so she can follow the travels on a map. Physical absence is much easier to endure when one is able to locate the other in time and space.
For the first deployment, I set up a wall clock with “Daddy time” to show what time it was in Afghanistan. We set up the clock app on their iPads with “Doha time” so the kids knew what time it was during the second deployment.
We may need to enlist the help of others to keep the deployed member present in the child’s mind when absent. Ask friends, relatives, or other caregiving adults to talk to the child about the deployed member in a friendly way, to help him imagine what the parent might be up to at certain times, to show him pictures that will evoke for him pleasant memories. Share special meals and special occasions with extended family and friends and speak warmly of the absent parent.
We tried to schedule special dinners and celebrations during videochat so it was like we all together.
sources: Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gabor Maté, MD, and Gordon Neufeld
The continuum concept is an idea coined by Jean Liedloff in her 1975 book The Continuum Concept, that human beings have an innate set of expectations that our evolution as a species has designed us to meet in order to achieve optimal physical, mental, and emotional development and adaptability.
It’s important to maintain this continuum for and with the child until he or she expresses the healthy need for independence. Deployments and other traumatizing events disrupt this natural gradation of individuation.
I emailed and texted frequently with photos, milestones, and special events of the kids so Dad could talk to them about these things on chat and video call.
I created photo book gifts of everything Dad missed on his deployments so he can share the memories too.
All this helps bridge the gaps in attachment so everyone maintains a feeling of closeness even though he’s far away in proximity.
How do you maintain attachment with a parent who’s far away?
You might also like:
- Celebrating the Holidays During Deployment
- How Deployment Affects Kids
- When a Parent Travels
- Military Children and Toxic Stress