Supporting your toddler during deployment
Development and Toddlers
Toddlers are incredibly complex, one minute they shout "no" and the next minute they want to snuggle in your lap. "No" says, "I am independent from you," as does the sweet smile on the way to do the thing you just said not to do. Your toddler needs to become independent to develop healthy self-esteem.
Support your toddler's need for independence by giving as many choices as possible. Give choices when possible, but if there is no choice, do not give one. Say, "It is time to go home, do you want me to carry your backpack or do you want to carry it?" This gives the child a choice about the backpack, not about going home. Do not say, "Are you ready to go home?" unless you can wait for 30 more minutes. When your toddler misbehaves try to offer a substitute: "Don't turn the knob on the stereo. Here, turn the knob on this toy."
Toddlers want to feel grown-up and helpful. Encourage their helpfulness. If your toddler wants to help by carrying the baby, say, "I will carry the baby. Can you carry the diaper bag?" Give small chores they can do and praise them generously.
Before You Leave
Take pictures of you and your toddler. Put these in your child's room and around the house. You can make a small book of these pictures. Be sure to include everyday activities that you do together such as brushing your teeth, raking the leaves, or taking walks.
Talk to your toddler about leaving and tell them where you are going. Describe in simple terms what you will be doing, such as "I will help fix the airplanes." Ask them to take care of something of yours while you are gone. Chose something touchable and unbreakable for them to take care of, like a favorite T-shirt they can sleep with or a cap. When the day to leave comes be sure to say goodbye.
Do not be surprised if you feel sad. You will miss your child. Your child will also miss you. Toddlers feel sadness and may cling to the home parent, but they are resilient and will be okay.
While the Military Parent is Gone
Your toddler loves daily rituals and will protest if you change them. Rituals provide a sense of security for your child. Create a new bedtime ritual that includes the absent parent. Hold your toddler and look at a picture of the military parent; say goodnight or blow a kiss.
Talk to your toddler every day about the deployed parent. Look at family pictures; point out the ways they are alike, how they have the same laugh or eyes. Talk about fun activities they did and will do again when the parent returns.
Toddlers sometimes develop fears. While these fears may seem silly to you, they are upsetting for your child. Nightmares seem real and frightening. Sometimes your child will know how to deal with fears and can tell you how to make the bedroom safe from scary things. Be sure to ask. One child may need the closet swept; another may need a stuffed tiger on the bed. Doing these things can help end the nightmares.
Your toddler may regress after the military parent leaves. There may be toileting accidents, thumb sucking, or whiney behavior. This is a toddler's way of saying, "I miss you." Treat it calmly, it will pass.
Parenting a toddler is hard work and you need support. Don't be afraid to ask for help. This is especially true if you want to yell or hit your toddler - or if you feel deep sadness that lasts more than two weeks.
You may be surprised at your toddler's behavior when you come home. You left a happy, easy-going baby and returned to a tantrum-throwing toddler who often says "no." Toddlers have to say "no" at times to establish their independence. It is very important for them.
The military parent and toddler need time to adjust to each other. Negative behavior is not personal. The calmer the parent stays the better. This is not the time to get into a struggle of wills. The toddler needs to assert independence and does so around loved ones.
The toddler may ignore you as a way of coping with change. This is an excellent time to learn by watching. Pay attention to the things your toddler likes. What is your child's favorite toy, or what is a favorite activity?
Including the whole family
Praise the home front parent. It is not easy living alone with a toddler. Be honest with yourself if you feel a bit jealous when you return. Those feelings are natural, too, and a sign of how much you love the baby
The parent who was deployed needs praise, too. It is heroic to leave a young family and do your duty.