Supporting your preschooler during deployment
Development and Preschoolers
Preschool children are delightful. The toddler 'storms' are past and a funny, curious preschooler emerges. Your child has conversations with you, makes friends, shows pride in new skills, and tells silly jokes.
Preschool development takes place in four areas: social, emotional, intellectual, and physical. Play, rather than school-like work, best supports this development. For instance, your preschooler's growing vocabulary allows conversations with friends. Talking with friends helps form social relationships. Social relationships encourage speech and a growing understanding of another's point of view. Muscle development in your child's hand allows pictures to be drawn that represent ideas and experiences. Painting, dancing, building, and playing house are creative work that enhance problem solving.
Preschoolers are "egocentric thinkers". Preschoolers think they are why things happen. For instance, children may think the deployed parent left because of them or because of something they did. Explain to the children that the parent was deployed because this is their job, not because of anything the child did.
Before You Leave
Talk with your preschooler. Tell your child where you are going and what you will be doing. Encourage your child to ask questions, but give simple answers. If you know when you will be coming home explain in simple terms, "I will be home after your birthday" or "after Christmas." Tell your preschooler you are sad to leave them but this is your job and you have to go do it.
Talk to your child about staying in touch while you are away. How will you communicate - e-mail, letters, phone calls, tapes?
Give your child ideas of things you would like to hear about - shopping with the home-front parent, dance lessons, the family dog. Keep communication fun, the important thing is maintaining your connection.
While the Military Parent is Gone
Start a notebook to share with the absent parent. When something funny or special happens to your preschooler, write it down. Ask your child to dictate what to say to you, read it over with your child. This is a great record of daily life for the absent parent and an excellent early reading activity.
Your preschooler may regress after the military parent leaves. There may be toileting accidents, whining, or testing you with difficult behavior. This is how they deal with the sadness of missing the absent parent. When your child does something bad, correct the behavior; do not shame the child.
Control the amount of television your child watches, especially images involving military actions. Talk about what your child sees on television. Preschool children do not always understand what they see. A child seeing a bombing on several different channels might think each one was a new event.
Create a goodnight ritual with your preschooler. Say goodnight to the absent parent while looking at their picture. You could each say one thing to each other that you like about the deployed parent.
Your child may show anger or joy or even ignore you when you return. All are normal. Sometimes children feel abandoned, even if you explained to them why you were deployed. They may need some time to warm up to you, or your child may want all of your time when you return.
Your child may use reunion to test limits. You may have been the disciplinarian before you were gone, but your spouse was the disciplinarian while you were deployed. You will both have to define who does what so that your rules are the same. Knowing the rules helps your child feel secure. Ignore small misbehaviors but praise good behavior.
Notice the things your child learned in your absence. Give your child praise for these new accomplishments. Show your love for your child by hugging them. Say, "I love you."
Both parents need to appreciate the sacrifices each made during deployment. It was not easy to be gone from your family. It was not easy for your spouse to raise the children alone while you were away. Every member of the family needs to tell each other why they are appreciated.