Helping Families With Preschoolers When Parents Are Deployed
Development and Preschoolers
The child of three and four is magical. The storms of toddlerhood are mostly past and a happy, curious preschooler emerges. The child responds to caring adults and starts to have friends among peers. New and exciting abilities are developing. Preschoolers show symbolical thinking, as they take care of their baby or become a superhero on the playground. Symbolic play helps develop memory, language, reasoning, and creativity. It also gives the child a way to address issues that the child is trying to understand, such as a parent being deployed.
Preschooler thinking is egocentric. Their thinking has not acquired the flexibility required to understand another person's point of view. Egocentrism may mean the child thinks the deployed parent left because of something they did. Tell the child their parent left because they had a job to do, not because of anything the child did. Remind the child they are loved and missed by the absent parent.
Children of this age are also developing their sense of self worth. Caregivers and parents can encourage children by helping them master tasks that require some effort. Tasks that are too hard set up a sense of frustration, while tasks that are a little hard give a sense of pride.
Before the Parent Leaves
Talk to the deploying parent about how you can support their family while they are away. Is there anything special they would like you to do?
Take pictures of the parent and their child and put those up in your classroom. You can make a small book of these pictures to look at with the child. Reassure the parent that the child will miss them, but that children are resilient and their child will be okay.
Encourage the parent and the child to discuss the separation. Talk about how they still care about each other even if they are apart. Remind both that love is forever even when families are apart. Choose books to read to the children that support family love and how families are forever.
While the Military Parent is Away
You may notice in dramatic play that the child acts out things the deployed parent might be doing. This play is a way for the child to internalize what is happening in their world. If you notice several children doing this, you might adjust the props available to the children to include these activities.
Interpret the child's behavior to the parent. A child who cries when they see the parent enter the room may have stored up those tears and been saving them for the person they love most - just like an adult may have a temper when they get home from a stressful day at work.
Caregivers need to develop rituals that include the deployed parent in the child's daily life. This could be through songs, stories, props, or activities. This helps the child think about the deployed parent.
Caregivers can use child-dictated stories to write what the child says. You could encourage a child to dictate a letter to you for the deployed parent.
Check in with the home parent. How are they doing? Do they need some simple suggestions for foods that you have noticed the child likes and that they could prepare at night? Encourage them to ask for help if you sense parenting or life is overwhelming them.
When the Military Parent Returns
Caregivers need to serve as advocates for the child. If the child shows anger toward the returning parent, you can explain that the child might have felt abandoned and will need some time to warm up. A preschool child is egocentric and might not understand why the parent had to leave even after having the reasons for deployment explained. The child might think they caused the parent to leave. After reunion it often takes several weeks for the family to return to normal
Another area the caregiver can support is discipline. The child may start testing limits. This may be hard on parents because the parents may be redefining limits themselves with the return of the deployed parent. The testing can be seen as a fact-finding mission that the child uses to see if the rules still count.
Caregivers need to be alert to unusual behavior. Check in with the child and the parents to see how reunion is going. A child who is misbehaving might be signaling that things are returning to normal or that there is a problem. Use your knowledge of child development and the individual child to guide you. Help the parent see that misbehavior is giving a message that can be interpreted.