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Being proactive helps children prepare for deployments

SAN ANTONIO -- For service members and their families, preparing for an upcoming deployment is another of the many challenges unique to military life.

Letting children know that they can talk about their fears and worries when preparing for a deployment helps them prepare for stressful situations in the future.

"When parents are having a conversation about their deployment with their child, they should be as genuine as they can, but filter their communication to the degree that's appropriate for the age of their child," said Dr. Kristy Hagar, a child psychologist who has been working with children, adolescents and young adults for 18 years.

"Children can get upset because their lives were stable and predictable, and now with a parent or both parents leaving, there's going to be change," Dr Hagar said. "Children are going to deal with change in their lives no matter what, so anything you can do proactively ahead of time where kids can feel like they are involved and they are being asked to help prepare for this shift, helps in the long run."

When Erin Hirvela was 2, her parents, Master Sgts. Gus and Danielle Hirvela, enlisted Elmo to help their daughter understand why her Daddy was going away for a while. The Hirvelas prepared for Erin's first deployment experience with a Sesame Street DVD they picked up at the base library.

"It was the one where Elmo explained the military and deployments," Sergeant Danielle Hirvela said. "One of the sayings they use in the video that stood out to us was that Mommy and Daddy are 'helping people.'"

Today, both Hirvelas are deployed and they said they still use that saying from the video to help 6-year-old Erin understand why they were leaving.

"When Gus left, we told Erin that Daddy had to go 'help people' and that he would be home before she knew," Sergeant Danielle Hirvela said. "We tried to keep a positive spin on everything. So when we discussed Mommy leaving and Aunt Gail coming, we mentioned how she was going to 'party like a rock star' and be a huge help for (her little brother) Jacob."

The level of honesty and the method of communication depend a lot on what the parents feel comfortable with, but they also need to recognize how they present themselves, Dr. Hagar said.

Children can pick up on their parent's emotions and stress, even when the parent is saying "everything is going to be fine," she said. The children are looking at the parent and thinking, "Well they are saying that they are fine, but I'm getting vibes that they feel nervous."

The doctor explained that those mixed signals can be more destructive and anxiety provoking in children than the parent being able to model his or her feelings and saying, "You know what, I'm kind of scared and I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm going to be as safe as I can be and we are going to do our best over there." Parents should come up with things that make the child feel at ease and at peace.

Children can learn from that open dialogue because it sets up a problem-solving model, Dr. Hagar said. It helps them think, "Well I don't really know what's going to happen, but I'm going to do this and this. This is what I'm thinking, and this is what helps me feel better."

Sergeant Danielle Hirvela said she and her husband told Erin about the upcoming deployments as soon as they knew.

"We talked about it a lot, but like most kids, it didn't really sink in until it got closer to the day he and I both left," she said. "Each situation is different and each kid is different, but the thing that has worked for us is being honest and putting a positive spin on everything as best as we could. I couldn't wear my emotions on my sleeve and I had to be strong hoping Erin would see that and do the same."

For younger kids, around ages 5 and below, sometimes parents have to play the role, Dr. Hagar said. For example, if a parent and child both see a large dog, the parent would just have to react calmly and soothe the child versus running away screaming because he doesn't want to set that example for the child. The same applies to deployments. If a parent recognizes how he presents himself and how he deals with his worries and fears, it sets an example for the child to follow.

Children 5 to 12 have a greater awareness of a parent being gone, Dr. Hagar said. They are involved in a lot more activities and sometimes that tends to serve as a reminder. Maintaining proactive strategies of how to stay connected can make the separation easier on children.

Maybe Dad couldn't come to the soccer game, but Mom and the children can plan to film it and send it to him, she said. Ask the children how they want to stay connected or let them pick out the pictures to send. Getting them involved gives them responsibility so that parents and children are collaborating as a family on how to solve the issue of a mom or dad not being there.

Older children, 12 and older, may be less likely to reach out to a parent or caregiver to talk about an upcoming deployment.

"Because of adolescence and all the things that go along with adolescence, it's also not uncommon for children in this age group to not want to talk," Dr. Hagar said. "Sitting them down to talk about their feelings may not be an effective strategy, but let them know if they have any questions about the deployment they should let you know, and leave it at that."

In this way, the parents are opening a door for dialogue and letting their children know if they want to talk, they can, and if they want to ask questions, they can, she added. Even if the parents let their children know the deployment is not some elephant in the room that no one can talk about, a lot of teenagers will say, "No I'm fine,' but at least the door is open.

Some older children may recognize where their parent is going and have a greater understanding of the danger that's involved, whereas a younger child may just realize that their mom or dad isn't there to tuck them in at night, Dr. Hagar said. Parents of children of different age groups need to prepare and adapt their filter for each child.

For more information on helping children deal with deployments, contact the base Airmen and Family Readiness Center or go to Military OneSource at www.militaryonesource.com.