Helping Families With Toddlers When Parents Are Deployed
Development and Toddlers
Toddlers are incredibly complex, one minute in a battle of defiance and the next minute wanting to snuggle in your lap. They have immense energy, a need to be physical, a desire to be grown-up, and an urge to test limits. Caring for toddlers in a group can be exhausting. They require caregivers to have the problem-solving ability to figure out who had the truck first and the patience to say for the hundredth time in one day, "use your words," to a child who is grabbing a toy from another child.
Environments for toddlers need as many "yes's" as possible including the use of safe structures that support large muscle development. Nurture toddler desire for independence by giving choices whenever possible. For example, say, "It is time to eat lunch. Would you like the red cup or the blue one?" Do not say, "Would you like lunch?" because skipping lunch is not an option for the child.
Caregivers need to use their intuition to discern the right moment just before play deteriorates to change the pace of activity. This is the time to bring out new materials, turn on music, or suggest different activities that engage and interest the children.
Toddlers want to feel grown-up and helpful. One way to do this is to give them manageable responsibilities and ways to help you.How Caregivers Help Families Cope with Deployment
Before the Parent is Deployed
Ask the deploying parent if there is anything you can do to support their family while they are gone. You may want to ask the deploying parent about their job so that you can talk to the toddler about the parent and what they are doing.
Take pictures of the deploying parent and toddler and put those 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 the child will be okay. Remind the parent to communicate with the toddler while they are gone. It is more important for the child that the parent stays in touch, than what they actually say.
While the Military Parent is Away
Toddlers love daily rituals and will protest if they are changed. Rituals provide a sense of security for children. Caregivers can develop rituals that include a child's parents such as simple songs that use family members' names. Such daily rituals are important to help the child think about the deployed parent.
The child may regress after the military parent is deployed. There may be toileting accidents, thumb sucking, or whiney behavior. This is a toddler's way of saying, "I miss my parent". Treat such behavior calmly, it will pass. Also, let the parents see that you treat regressive behavior calmly. This demonstrates to the parent that this behavior is not a cause for alarm.
The caregiver may notice that the child has more fears than before. This is normal for this age. Increased fears seem to go along with increased independence. Treat fears as real; they are real for the child. Help the child and parent address them so the child is comforted.
You can also help the child by your support of their parent. Is the parent okay? How is their stress level? Do not forget you may be the last adult they talk to at the end of the day. Take the time to check in with them as they pick up their child each day. Refer them to help if necessary.
Reunion of the Family
The military parent and toddler will need time to adjust to each other when the parent returns. The relationship has been on hold. If the child is difficult, explain that a child's difficult behavior is giving a message. Children have to say 'no' at times to establish their independence. It is a phase that will not last forever and is very important for the toddler. Remind them that negative behavior is not personal, but comes from within the toddler. The calmer the parent stays the better. This is not the time to get into a struggle of wills.
Caregivers can point out a toddler's likes and dislikes to the parent, such as a favorite toy or how the toddler likes to climb. Describe the toddler's abilities to the parent. Also, be sure to ask the parents what they notice their toddler enjoys. Exchanging information helps the returning parent get reacquainted sooner.
The toddler may ignore the returning parent; that is a way of coping with change. You can reassure the parent that this will pass. Encourage them to enjoy watching what the toddler likes to do.
Caregivers can honor the job both parents have been doing. It is not easy being alone with a toddler. It is also not easy leaving your family and child that you love to do your duty. Reunion is a good time to appreciate one another again and you can help them do that.