“… Christmas Eve will find me where the love light gleams; I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” American households from sea to shining sea anticipate the joy of reuniting with family every Christmas season. Loved ones make the celebration complete. Yet many will not see loved ones this Christmas because they are assigned around the globe to protect the ideals of America. They will be home for Christmas only in their dreams. It will take its toll on their hearts, but in their dreams they
will be with the ones they love gathered round the tree, exchanging hugs/kisses, and cuddling close.
Military personnel have more than a job: They have an obligation to uphold ideals, which breaks the boundary of any board room and shatters the concept of a “normal work week.” Duties call them out of their homes, beyond their communities, across seas and borders. They give up time, energy, and comforts. They forfeit life with spouses. They miss years of their children’s lives. They give up the right to scurry home even for emergencies. They are willing to give the ultimate gift; their lives.
This Christmas, some soldiers will be leaving for deployment, some will be in deployment, and some will make it “home for Christmas.” Although dreams of perfection accompany every homecoming, any military person who has experienced post-deployment, will affirm, it is not the dream of perfection one would hope. Soldiers have to relearn to let down their guard; danger no longer lurks around every corner. Spouses and children learn to fit the deployed back into everyday life. Regardless of idyllic wishes, it is a time of adjustment for everyone, especially children.
Ask the Experts
Dr. James Bender, Psychologist says, “Without question, the best part of deployment is coming home. But even after a joyful reunion, the weeks/months after homecoming pose special challenges for children, no matter their ages.” He offers some insights for returning parents.
Infants/small children (ages 0 to 3): may not remember or may be uncomfortable around the returning parent. This is normal and will diminish after a few weeks. Spending time with children and being an active parent will help.
Middle-age children (ages 4 to 12): may be overly clingy and affectionate: they’re afraid mom/dad will leave again. Be patient. Explain that even though leaving for work, the parent will be back in the evening; constant reassurance helps. Also, make near-future plans, like a picnic in two days or playing catch in the yard after work. This both reassures children and allows for some quality time together.
Teenagers: may be distant or even hurtful, accusing the parent of abandoning them. Teen angst needs an outlet and deployment offers an opportunity for venting. Try not to take it personally. Recognize they have suffered because of the absence even though they did not volunteer.
All families, military or not, have hardships children must endure. Resist the temptation to make it up by buying gifts. Spending time together is a better option. Also, try not to disrupt their schedule; respect that they have sports/activities with friends that are important to them.” (http://offthebase.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/helping-military-children-reconnect-after-deployment/, accessed Oct. 2011)
Deployed parents need to make a concerted effort to reconnect with children. Bonds have weakened over time and distance. Every post-deployed parent makes the choice to engage in the family unit, once again; reestablishing relationships with each person. “Military parents coming home from war have missed many special moments in their children's lives. They may be anxious to reconnect and hoping for an immediate return to the kind of relationship they had before leaving. But for the children themselves, there is no going back. Their lives changed overnight when their parent left and now they are changing again. They, themselves, have changed and they have different expectations,” Rebecca Freshour warns, in her article Returning Soldiers Bring Joy, Stress to Families. (http://sparkaction.org/node/4196, accessed Oct. 2011)
Remembering a few key points will assist parents as they try to reconnect with children.
• Spend time with each child seeking to learn every thing possible about the time of absence. Let children share pictures, crafts, stories, scrapbooks, memories, etc. Willingness to spend time and listen signals the child of their importance.
• Be patient with children. Time missed cannot be made up, but moments in the present and future can be captured to build and reconnect the relationship. Over time children learn to trust again.
• Expect children to test rules/boundaries; make sure spouses agree. Children naturally test boundaries to ensure their world still has the same parameters. Do not forget those parameters mean safety and security to children: their world has order they understand.
• Family time is important. The family needs to grow together.
• Do not take over parental roles all at once. Children need a “transition of power,” if you will. Their worlds have been ordered and run by the parent on the home front. A returning parent needs to reestablish trust and authority before resuming old parental roles. It can be a confusing and stressful time for children whose world has, once again, been rearranged. Give them time to adjust.
• Remember, every child is different. Each will have their own specific difficulties. Be sensitive to individual personalities and maturity levels. Do not let unrealistic expectations ruin the present.
Children’s adjustments will be affected by parental adjustments. Parents need to recognize that post-deployment goes through phases. Understanding these will make sense of the process and give reassurance of normalcy. Spouses will naturally have expectations of reunion, but attempt to keep them realistic and be flexible. Both parents should anticipate change. “Do not allow change to be magnified and become divisive. Individuals change with experiences and time. During the separation, all members of the family had different experiences and they are now part of their history and how they view things. The returning soldier has experienced the harsh realities of war. The “Home parent” has experienced a level of independence they may not have experienced before. The spouse has had to make decisions about such things as what the children are allowed to do, finances, and home repairs. “The children have learned to depend on the “home parent” and will go to them for permission or assistance when needed,” reminds the Parent’s Guide to the Military Child During Deployment and Reunion. (http://www.uswestaap.org/Parent_Guide_Deployment.pdf, accessed Oct. 2011)
Often both spouses think they had the “harder” assignment; each was placed in new responsibilities, faced things they had never imagined, personal choices/wishes were often put aside, jobs were 24/7, and each reached exhaustion. Both partners feel they are due some “time off” when duty is over. Deployment is difficult for everyone involved, including children. But, post-deployment, for the sake of family, must be viewed from a familial viewpoint; what is best for the whole family and not from an individual viewpoint. The family’s best must be sought by all concerned for family bonds to be rebuilt and strengthened.
Here is wishing all the deployed this Christmas a heart full of love and family, even though there are miles in between. And to those who make it home, here’s hoping “Christmas Eve will find you, where the love light gleams…home for Christmas, just like you dreamed.”
A huge thank you, with abundant gratitude, to all those servicemen who give so unselfishly. And a special thank you to the Holmes family of Michigan and the Pound family of North Carolina who shared from personal experience in candid honesty their experiences with deployment for this article.
Stages of Post-Deployment
• Honeymoon Period - A wonderfully joyous time. A long anticipated reunion. Couples share location physically but not necessarily emotionally.
• Loss of Independence – Home has demands and pressures that a family needs to relearn to work together in solving. The independence experienced in living separate places has become the “norm” and relinquishing it can cause friction and disillusionment for all parties.
• Need for “own” space – The returning spouse experienced a lot of life that no one else in the household can understand. They may need some time and space to work through what only they have experienced. The spouse who remained at home has established some routines that need to be respected; an exercise regimen, book club, etc.
• Renegotiating routines – Basic household chores and responsibilities need to be reassigned and negotiated. The household needs to learn to function as a unit again with the returning member incorporated. Many things have changed and returning to life as before deployment cannot be assumed. A “new” normal must be worked through.
• Reintegrating into Family – Children react differently to a missing parent. Much depends on their developmental level. Patience and understanding are needed to give children room to reconnect and bond with the returning parent. Lower expectations of “a perfect reunion” and slowly reassure children of love and security. Spouses, as well, need a time of adjustment.
Time Frame: Up to 6 months after return
(Adapted from:http://militarywivesmatter.org/emotionalcycleofdeployment.html#post-deployment, accessed Oct. 2011)