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I recently received the following question: “My husband and I read your column weekly and respect your advice. We now need some, please!
He has just deployed to the Gulf for 3-4 months and I am very concerned about the impact this might have on our 16-month-old daughter. We made a video of him and also I’ve hung up pictures (life sized face) for her to see. I point to the pictures and talk about him to her. She just started saying “Dada” in reference to him last week, and now he is gone.
Today she said and signed (she knows about 14 ASL signs) Dada several times in a row, on several occasions unprompted, almost like she is asking for him. What kind of reaction can we expect from her? Is she cognizant of his absence or its duration? And most important, what can I do to make this easier on her?”
Let me reprint my answer here as I know there are many mothers and (fathers) who are parenting children alone while their partner is away in the military. Perhaps they can generalize to their own situationfrom my answer.
Yes, your daughter DOES miss her Dada and is asking for him both with the word and the sign.
At this age she has no sense of time so telling her he will be back in 4 months won’t help. But children this age understand many more words than they can say. They also sort of grasp concepts and pick up on your mood. So the mother should cheerfully tell her when she asks for him, “Your Dada loves you. But he had to go to another place to work for his country. He will be back soon.” Then distract her with cuddling or a book or game.
The video and life size pictures of Daddy are both great ideas! Keep talking about him in a casual way like, “When Daddy comes home we will all go swimming.” Use the life size pictures and video as a teaching aid to remind your daughter of this important person in her life. Hopefully, Daddy can email or send more pictures, send voice tapes, or make phone calls but I know how hard that may be from a war zone.
Finally, you have to be both parents now. And this can be a hard task for two reasons: you are dealing with your own worries and anxieties and your daughter is mourning her “loss.” This means there are times when you won’t be at your best. And your daughter may be needy cranky or irritable. She may regress to earlier developmental stages and she may not be her normal, happy child self.
My advice may sound paradoxical because you specifically asked about how to help your daughter. But I suggest you start by taking care of your own emotional needs. Find other moms whose husbands have been deployed for peer group support. Check into resources provided by the military for families in your situation. Keep yourself physically and mentally healthy. For myself when I have worries, doing something physical like taking a walk is helpful.
Then concentrate on meeting your daughter’s needs for love and parenting. You have to find ways to meet these needs by yourself until Daddy comes home. This means spending more time with her, being responsive to her moods, finding new ways to distract her from sadness, and giving her enough love for two parents.
Reentry can be a bit of a problem downstream because your daughter will start forgetting her father. This is a natural way the brain helps us deal with sad things, as time goes on we think of them less. When your husband returns he will be somewhat of a stranger to her. You and your husband should both be prepared for this possibility
Let me add that older children should be handled a bit differently although the principles of keeping the absent parent present using pictures and voice, sticking to household routines as best you can, and taking care of yourself as the sole parent still pertain. Older children, and especially teens, should be encouraged to talk about their worries and fears. How does a parent do this? By sharing his or her own concerns not in a way to upset the child but in a realistic way. “I worry about Daddy, we all do. But we will all stay cheerful, do our work at home and at school, and make Daddy proud of us.”
Empower older children by giving them things to do which can make them feel more secure and in control. Have them write letters and emails, find the soldier’s location on the map, keep a scrapbook of photos, and give them responsibility for more around the house. A single parent, even when it is a temporary situation, needs a lot of help.
One last thing: Minimize TV exposure and be sure you are present when your children watch news broadcasts. Remember the way TV works these days: we see the same thing over and over again so it looks as though terrible things are happening all the time instead of the reality that a terrible thing happened once.
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