The dos and don'ts of talking to children about a parent in the war zone
"Is Daddy going to die?" "Is Mommy safe?" "I've been missing Mom. When will she be home?" "How come Daddy has been gone so long?" "I want my dad to come home now!" "Why doesn't Mom write us more often?"
If you have a spouse in the service, dealing with uncertainty and anxiety is a given. The demands of temporary single parenting, the regular accounts of terrorist attacks and US military responses, and the fear of possible death or injury of your loved one can generate an emotional strain that is difficult to manage.
In the midst of dealing with your own emotional issues and daily concerns, you are now expected to nurture children who are unsure, fearful, and lonely and who are being asked to cope with uncertainty and change in their own young lives. How do you handle it? How do you respond to their fears when some days you aren't even sure you know how to handle your own? How do you answer their questions when the only thing you know for sure is that you don't have all the answers and are living in the midst of uncertainty yourself? How do you deal with your child's strong emotions when you are caught up in your own intense feelings? What's a concerned, loving parent to do?
The following dos and don'ts of talking to children about a parent in the war zone are designed to help you manage that important task. Consider these suggestions as guidelines. Use them as a structure to fall back on in time of need. Employ them to help your children cope with the uncertain and sometimes fearful circumstance of having a parent in the war zone.
Do tell the truth. Give your children accurate information regardless of their age. Yes, using age-appropriate language that takes the developmental level of the child into account is important. You don't say the same things to a teenager as you do to a two-year-old. If your four-year-old asks, "Will Daddy die?" you don't give her a statistical analysis of the number of people serving compared to the number wounded and killed in action. You say, "We don't think so. In war, sometimes people die, but we know Daddy and his friends are doing everything they can to stay safe." Answer accurately within the child's field of understanding.
Do respond to the feeling tone of your child's question or comment. If your child says, "Daddy doesn't seem to care about us anymore," this is not the time to focus on the content of the message. It is not helpful at this time to reassure your child that his father does care or work to convince him that his feelings are wrong. Focus your attention instead on responding to the feelings stated or implied. Say, "You're missing your dad today," or "It feels lonely to have your dad so far away, doesn't it?" The feeling your child is communicating is more important than the content of his message. Children are starving for feeling recognition. Feed their hunger by helping them focus on their feelings without attempting to talk them out of those feelings.
Don't give children more information than they ask for. If your seven-year-old child wants to know why she doesn't hear from Mommy more often, it isn't necessary to explain logistical mail problems, technological nuances or the inner working of the US Postal Service. After acknowledging your child's feeling tone as suggested, give her a simple answer: "It's difficult to keep up correspondence when you're engaged in the important work that your mother does." If she wants to know more, she'll ask.
Don't watch a lot of TV news with your child. Television and newspapers sensationalize. That is how they get readers and maintain viewers. Gore, destruction, and body counts sell. The safe, mundane, ongoing daily efforts of thousands of people who are in minimal danger are overlooked and go underreported. Your child does not need constant exposure as a reminder of the possible tragic results of having a parent serving their country in a war zone.
Do keep in contact. Encourage your child to write letters, make drawings, bake cookies, create tape recordings, and send them to your spouse. Having a regular communication time set aside -- Sunday night, for example -- is helpful.
Get out your special Daddy Communication Box that contains paper, envelopes, stamps, special pens, stickers, postcards, etc. Model for your children the importance of ongoing communication with their father.
Don't deny the severity of the situation. Children have built-in bull detectors. They can tell when you're not being honest with them. They can sense when things are tense. They pick up on your moods and overhear you talking to others. Be straight with them about the dangers involved in their parent's job if they ask. On the other hand, don't talk about every possible negative outcome. If your children want to know, they will ask. Keep the severity warnings to a bare minimum.
Do focus on the helpers. Let your children know that when problems arise, the helpers come. There are many helpers in our society. Police officers are helpers. Firefighters are helpers. Tell them that some people choose to be helpers and that their father is one of those people. Let them know he has been trained to be a helper and that he is good at it. Encourage them to be proud of the fact that their dad has chosen to be a helper. Give them more information about how their dad helps if they ask.
Don't expect your child to take care of your emotional state. Do not become hysterical in your child's presence or vent on, confide in, or use him or her as your support system. If you need to vent or share your fears and worries, turn to a member of the clergy, a counselor, friends, or relatives. It is not your child's job to be your support system. It is your job to be their support system.
Do tell your children about your faith. Your beliefs and your family beliefs are important at this time. Pray with your children regularly if that fits with your belief. Use this opportunity to help them learn that you trust in your faith, and model for them how your faith sustains you in time of need.
Do tell your children about family strength. Say, "We have a strong family and we'll make it through." "We'll be able to handle it together" and "I know you can handle it" are other positive things to say to your children. "I know you can handle it" is a form of encouragement that communicates your respect for your child's ability to manage her own life. While you cannot guarantee that your children's life will give them the exact circumstances they want, you can help them feel secure in their ability to cope with whatever circumstances present themselves.
Parenting a child whose father or mother has gone away to serve their country in a time of war is not an easy task. This special circumstance requires special skills and insights not needed by the average parent. It is our sincere hope that the ideas above will serve you in your efforts to parent at this difficult time while your spouse is choosing to serve our country. Thank you for your contribution to keeping our country and your family strong.