The homecoming of a service member is a major change for the children in a household. They have grown physically, emotionally, and socially during the deployment. They are not as skilled at coping with their stress because they have little life experience. As a result, they may become firmly attached to the returning parent wanting their undivided attention or they may seem distant, withdrawn or seem that they just don’t care. There will be a readjustment period (typically four to six weeks) for the entire family. You can greatly enhance your family’s reunion by developing realistic expectations of how your child will respond to the service member’s return based upon the child’s age. Children are developing individuals who change rapidly in their thoughts and behavior. What you can generally expect of different ages, and how you can improve the reunion process with your children is discussed below.
Infants (Birth to 1 year):
As painful as it might be to consider, do not expect an infant to recognize the parent who has returned from a long deployment. Infants have not yet developed a great ability to remember people and events. They may cry, fuss, or pull away when held by the deployed person. Again, go slow. The infant will warm up at his or her own pace.
Toddlers (1 to 3 years):
A typical toddler response would be to hide from the newly returned parent, to cling to his/her primary caregiver, cry, and perhaps regress in potty training. Give your child space and time to warm up to the returning parent. It helps for the deployed parent to sit at eye level with your child and talk with him/her. A gentle offer by the parent to play with the toddler may be helpful, but do not force the issue. Also, the child may have a clearer memory of the deployed parent if the stay behind caregiver frequently showed him/ her pictures of the military member and said “Daddy” or “Mommy,” as the case may be. This is helpful because for children at this age, the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” aptly applies.
Preschoolers (3-5 years):
Children in this age range can tend to think that the world revolves around them. It is not uncommon for your preschooler to think that he or she somehow made their parent go away, or that the parent left because he or she no longer cared about the child. Keeping this in mind, the child may feel abandoned or guilty. They may also express anger and test limits to see if familiar rules still apply. In order to promote the reunion process, it is important for the parent to accept the child’s feelings and focus on rewarding good behavior. Additionally, the returning parent should support the other parent’s rule enforcement but also be careful about stepping into an authoritative role too quickly.
School Age (5-12 years):
In this age range, children are more likely to give returning parents a warm reception, especially if their relationship was strong before the deployment. The child will probably try to monopolize the service member’s attention by showing off accomplishments and hobby items. If their relationship was strained before the deployment, the child may fear that the deployed parent may punish them for misbehavior during deployment. This thought process can lead the child to be shy and withdrawn at first. It is good for the returning parent to be friendly and show interest in what the child has done in their absence, while praising the child for their accomplishments.
Adolescent (13-18 years):
Adolescents can have mood swings— one moment they are solving problems in a reasonable and logical way and the next may be reacting in a purely emotional fashion. So, your adolescent’s reaction to your return may be characterized by mixed emotions. Like the school age child, your adolescent will likely be very excited to see the deployed parent again, if the relationship was good-natured prior to the deployment. Sometimes, however, adolescents are reserved to publicly express their emotions and may be more concerned about acting “cool” in front of their peers. Adolescents tend to be very sensitive about being unfavorably judged or criticized. With this in mind, be sure to make time to discuss with your adolescent what is going on in his/her life as well as what you’ve experienced. As with sons and daughters of any age, it’s critical to give your adolescent some of each parent’s undivided pleasant attention.
If you are a single parent in the military, there are a few additional issues to consider. If you’re a custodial parent, your children have probably been living with someone else for several months. The bond between this caregiver and your children has strengthened. Your child’s increased bond and loyalty to their caregiver may be painful for you, but go slow. Focus on communicating both with the caregiver and your children, and recognize that you and your children will need to adapt to living with each other again. Your children have been living with someone else who probably had different rules and procedures compared to your own household. Give yourself and your children adequate time to “shift gears”. The adjustment period can be awkward, but it is helpful to involve the caregiver with the transition.
Since your children have lived with some different family rules and procedures, take time to compare with them the rules of your home. As you’re doing this, seek their input regarding how they would prefer life at home. They should feel included in the process of re-establishing the structure and tone of their home environment.
If you are a non-custodial parent, your children’s living conditions were probably not altered by your deployment. However, your visits with the children have been curtailed. As you re-establish these visits, remember that you and your children have grown and you will need to take time to get reacquainted.