If as an adult you struggle with your soldier being deployed, try to imagine for a moment how your children feel about this confusing and stressful time. Or perhaps you were a military child yourself and you understand the angst that goes along with waiting for a deployment to end and wishing for a sense of normalcy to return. Parents, grandparents, and caregivers often face the challenges of caring for children who struggle with understanding their emotions about their soldier’s deployment. They do this all while trying to deal with their own roller coasters of feelings during deployment. Fortunately, there are several things that can be done to help children understand their own feelings and keep communication open between you and them.
Establish a Safe Method of Communication
Kids sometimes simply don’t know what is OK to talk about and what causes people to become agitated or frustrated at the mere mention. As they try to handle their own emotions, they add to that worrying that brining up their own sadness will make others sad, so they avoid the conversation altogether. Try some of these activities to keep kids talking and give them safe zones for doing so.
Invest in an inexpensive conversation ball, like the ones available here. There are numerous vendors who offer these fun, inexpensive conversation starters. There are dozens of phrases or questions listed all over the ball. It gets tossed around and when given a prompt or when the music stops, the person holding the ball reads the question under his left thumb (for example), and provides an answer. These can be as basic as: “When I grow up I want to be a…” to something more significant such as, “The last thing I prayed about was…”. These balls give families opportunities to have active fun together but still incorporate conversations. You might be surprised at what your child reveals during this game.
Whether you play a game or not, find a way and a time each day to let your kids know that you would like to hear from them how they are doing. Make sure you are not rushed, there are no spying ears around to overhear, and you come into the situation without your own overwhelming emotions.
Help Your Kids Understand their Emotions
Find a method that works for your child to record her feelings. For some kids this is a simple as a diary or journal, but for others it might be recording their own stories onto the computer, keeping a collection of drawings and artwork, or using a camera to capture pictures that reflect how they feel. They can use the camera to take reverse images in the mirror, seeing themselves and the emotional faces they can make.
Give words to emotions and build your child’s emotional intelligence. Instead of using general terms to sum up emotions, such as sad, happy, OK, scared, and fine, elaborate on deeper feelings. You can do this by discussing the feelings that others display, even on television or in a movie. Say something such as, “It looks to me like that man is feeling frustrated that his family didn’t listen, and he might be feeling scared about what he will do next. What do you think?” This is an example of how you can show your child that sometimes we are feeling more than one thing at a time, and it is not always easy to figure that out and find a way to deal with those emotions. Then you can ask for their thoughts and ideas. It is safer sometimes to discuss what someone else might be feeling and how they deal with that, and then apply those examples to our own lives.
Children move through transitional stages physically, emotionally, and mentally, and it is challenging to raise them even in the best of circumstances. Work to acknowledge their feelings and give them opportunities to share them. If you are ever concerned that you just can’t give them the help they need with their emotions and concerns, bring someone into their lives that can help – a friend, neighbor, or even therapist. Our children’s emotions require more care than all of the glassware in the world, but you can do it through persistence and patience.
Photo credit: Andy
It’s never easy for children to be separated from their parents and loved ones, whether it is for military duty or something such as serious illness or injury. Keeping connections between close family members can be just a little bit easier by using a new twist on the traditional Flat Stanley project. Instead of just one Flat Stanley having adventures with lucky individuals, children and their beloved soldier will both get to have adventures and make memories with this Flat Fellows activity, easing the physical and sometimes emotional distance separating them.
How to Make Flat Fellows
If you, your child, or your soldier, have never read the classic Flat Stanley, by Jeff Brown, begin by sharing this story together. You can read the book aloud to your young child, recording your voice, or your older reader can record his own voice. Send the audio file to your soldier, or if it is easier, send the actual paperback book and let him read it for himself.
Once everyone is familiar with the tale, the new twist on the project, Flat Fellows, can begin with these first steps.
- Take a full-height picture of your child or have her draw one of herself on cardstock paper. If you are using a photo, print the picture on white cardstock or other heavyweight paper. A sheet of 8.5” x 11” is an easy size to mail when folded in thirds.
- Arrange to either receive a full-height picture of your soldier, have your soldier draw one himself, or have your child design one.
- Take 2 folders with brad bindings on the inside (add paper to the folders), 2 journals with pockets, or even 2 scrapbooks, and add a Flat Fellow to each one.
- You can copy the following phrase into the journals or on pages in the folders, have your child write it out, or come up with your own (just make sure to do it for both journals).
I am your new Flat Fellow friend
And I can’t wait to see where you roam.
Take me along wherever you go,
And bring me back to your special home.
Make sure to write about it for (fill in with name of child/soldier)
He/she can’t wait to hear all our tales.
Even though we can’t always be right there
Our special love never fails.
Once you have your new poem inscribed, you can explain to your child and your soldier how this is going to work. Your child will keep the journal with the Flat Fellow who looks like your soldier, while your soldier will get the journal with the Flat Fellow of your child.
Why Flat Fellows are Important
The idea behind this project is that your soldier and child will each record notes about what the Flat Fellow saw, what the Flat Fellow might have eaten, and anything the Flat Fellow might have done. Your child can take pictures of her Flat Fellow going down the slide at the park, sitting in your child’s bike basket, or riding in the car going to Grandma’s. If you go to a movie, your Flat Fellow can take the ticket stub and add it to the journal. Let your child be creative. Your soldier can be inventive as well about his activities, perhaps taking a picture with his Flat Fellow in a bunk or writing about how many friends the Flat Fellow has met.
The main goal of doing this activity with your child and your soldier is to build another opportunity for them both to feel connected with each other. Even though they are far apart, their Flat Fellows can be witnesses to the little things in life that make all of the difference. You can continue this project for any length of time, but doing it for at least 2-3 weeks should give you a good supply of memories for the journals, but the longer you continue the project, the more interesting the adventures might become. It can also make a great Christmas present for both your child and your soldier to receive the newly created Flat Fellow journals or scrapbooks so they both know what the other has been doing. Separation from loved ones can be difficult for children (and adults), but finding positive ways to form new types of connections will help bridge those distances and keep kids thinking about new ways to have their Flat Fellows share their own adventures.
Photo credit: Jason
In America Thanksgiving is a time of gathering with family and reflecting on all we have in our lives. Even though your soldier might not be able to be present for the celebration, you can include him and help you and your children feel connected to him during this holiday season.
Cornucopia of Blessings
Take an empty wicker or other decorative cornucopia, a symbol of overflowing bounty, and place it in a central location in the home. Several weeks before Thanksgiving, take time each day to write with your children one thing they are thankful for and place this note in the cornucopia. Use orange, yellow, and red pieces of paper, and fold them to give them depth before you place them in the cornucopia. By Thanksgiving you should have visible evidence of all of the wonderful things in your life. At dinner, read these aloud among whomever is there, then take them and create a scrapbook of thanks for your soldier and send the book as a wonderful reminder of the love waiting back home.
You can’t easily send mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie in a box overseas, but you can still send some holiday treats to your soldier. Use your regular sugar cookie dough recipe, divided into two, and add just enough food coloring to each batch to make one yellow and the other orange. Roll out the dough and use turkey shaped cookie cutters. Have your kids help you decorate them with fall colored sprinkles, and then send a sweet treat to your soldier. If you have teens or tweens, consider letting them have a baking party where they can invite friends over to make and decorate the cookies, and have enough to share with neighbors or send to other soldiers.
Birthdays – Gotta Have ‘Em
For your soldier’s birthday, send a care package that the kids help create. You can include the usual birthday cards, but add in there some unique surprises such as trick candles, a roll of streamers, balloons, and a list of all the things you love about your soldier – the number should match the age the birthday brings. You could even opt to send a clue as to what the birthday gift waiting at home is, but keep the actual gift at home, creating anticipation your child can get excited about with this fun secret.
If your soldier is missing the birthday of your child and that is causing sadness, you can plan ahead and have your soldier pick a special gift to give your child. Have the gift wrapped and with a card from your soldier. It could even be the first gift of the day, or a special token left on a pillow just before bed time. Your soldier could record herself singing Happy Birthday and either send it to you online or on a flash drive to play for your child. Take two pieces of birthday cake, one each for your child and your soldier, and borrow a tradition from weddings and place the cake in the freezer to be shared when your soldier returns.
No matter what the holiday, celebration, or special event is, it is important to make sure you don’t put your lives on pause while your soldier is deployed. For children this matters even more. The younger they are the more their memories will be shadowed by emotions. Do what you can to make sure that those special times are celebrated when your soldier is deployed, but include your soldier in little ways to bring all of you closer.
For the first installment of this two part series, see Creative Ways to Celebrate Holidays During Your Soldier’s Deployment (Part 1!)
Photo credit: Adrian
Holidays and birthdays are those special times when we try to gather with loved ones to celebrate and create memories. When those who are important to us are deployed abroad, keeping traditions and celebrating without them can be a sad reminder of the distance separating you from them. When there are young children involved, finding ways to recognize special days can become even more challenging.
Soldiers have some of the only jobs that continue right through the holidays, and sometimes days abroad are barely recognizable as holidays compared to typical celebrations at home. However, for loved ones at home holidays can be markers of time that are bittersweet. Children sometimes feel guilty about celebrating without their parents or older siblings, and may not want to acknowledge the holiday until the soldier comes home. Find ways to keep celebrating, even if you need to modify the typical plans.
Celebrating Christmas During Deployment
Christmas is celebrated all around the world, and the distance might never seem so great between you and your soldier than at this time of year. Use one or all of the following tips for creating memories, keeping traditions, and making new ones this holiday season with your children and your soldier.
Christmas – The Sequel
Make holidays Part I and Part II celebrations, and reinforce to kids that this is the best of both worlds! Part I of the holiday can be celebrated on the original date, such as Christmas. There are just certain things that mark these passages of time, such as attending a church service, singing carols with the neighbors, and decorating a tree. Hold a Part II celebration when your soldier returns, and account for some of the traditions that can be done “out of season”. This might be snuggling together to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, making a gingerbread house, or exchanging Secret Santa gifts. Your soldier will love the homecoming celebration, and your child will be able to continue celebrating and create memories.
Trimming the Tree
A Christmas tree can be a symbol of life, and decorating one is often a family tradition. One way to make trimming the tree special for families separated by deployment is to ask your soldier to send back little trinkets from the base or the area in which they are serving. These can be as simple as buttons, postcards, or even pictures. Help your kids to use these items to make Christmas ornaments to hang on your tree at home.
In return, send your soldier a paper handprint tree that the kids make together. To do this, start with the smallest hands first (if you have more than one child), and trace 2 or 3 handprints on green construction paper. Do this for everyone in the family. Cut out the handprints. Arrange the cutouts with the fingers pointing downward, overlapping each other like this one, and glue the pieces to form a tree. Let the kids decorate the handprint tree with markers, glitter, stickers, and more, then wrap up this great Christmas tree and send it to your soldier.