Ten tips to help children celebrate holidays when a parent is deployed
by Rachel Robertson
It seems like the whole country begins to celebrate the holidays as soon as the first snowflake hits the ground. Everywhere you look there are reminders of the season: stores decorated with tinsel and garland, strands of lights hanging from streetlights, advertisements for pictures with Santa, the smell of cinnamon and cloves at the grocery store, the holiday shopping frenzy. It is nearly impossible to not notice all of the holiday hustle and bustle, but when someone you love is absent, those constant reminders can often be painful.
Military children with a deployed parent are particularly susceptible to feelings of sadness during the holidays. There’s no doubt military kids can be resilient and resourceful, but they also face some emotional challenges during the holidays. Fortunately, with a little planning the adults in their lives can ensure a holiday season full of cheer, warmth, and cherished memories.
1. Honor traditions. It is important to determine what holiday traditions you cannot do without. Even if children aren’t old enough to help make the decisions, it is good to have them present during this discussion. Don't underestimate importance of continuity and the predictability of traditions. However, if there are traditions that your family could do without, consider skipping them for the year.
2. Start new traditions. Honoring traditions is important, but there's nothing wrong with starting new ones. Mix things up a little bit. Again, it is a good idea to involve kids in these decisions. Spending the holidays in a different location, having a potluck instead of a sit-down dinner, or even camping out on the living room floor one night may be enough of a change to refocus on the positive.
3. Celebrate with the deployed person. Even if your loved one is thousands of miles away, he or she can still help you celebrate. Send a care package with a special treat; mail a scrapbook after the holidays; or ask the deployed person to send you a homemade ornament or decoration. One year, when my husband was in the field for Christmas, he made an award winning ornament. You’d be surprised at what someone can do with a little PVC pipe and duct tape.
4. Remember what the holidays are about. Regardless of which holidays your family celebrates, this time of year is about kindness, caring, love, and peace. It is important to focus on the things you are grateful for. Teaching children to be selfless and to appreciate the joy in their lives despite the hardships is one of the best gifts you can give them.
5. Have fun! Some families decide to have a few laughs during the holiday season to ease the tension. One military family had a picture of their deployed dad blown up to life size and laminated. They proceeded to include him in all of the holiday events. He was in the family holiday photo and even had a place set for him at the dinner table. Another family decided to save their big holiday celebration until dad got home in July. It was a bit hard to find a Christmas tree in the summer so they used a ficus tree instead.
6. Document the event. Get out the video recorder, camera, and journal. Even when our loved ones don't get to be there to see everything, they certainly wish they could be. It is important to get the kids involved in this process. Not only will they have fun; it will shift their focus and allow them to process the holidays from a different perspective. Even if it is as simple as sitting near a fire sipping hot cocoa and sharing memories, both the children and the deployed person will appreciate the record of the event. As years pass those preserved memories will be treasured.
7. Take care of yourself. If you are taking care of the children during the deployment, it is imperative that you take care of yourself, too. Children are amazingly perceptive, and no matter how carefully you try to mask any gloomy feelings, they will know something is wrong. Make sure you talk about your feelings, share your sadness, spend time with friends, and do things for yourself. It's important to give children the gift of a safe, predictable, and happy home.
8. Don’t be alone. Military families near or on an installation have the benefit of having their “military family” nearby, but those that live far from a base often feel isolated. I spent my first Christmas as a military wife surrounded by civilians who had no idea how I felt. I will always remember the kind words and sage advice shared with me by a retired Marine. We were not close but he made the effort to check on me weekly throughout the holidays and shared with me how much my husband surely missed me too. That comfort from someone who knew what I was going through was priceless to me. The presence of extended family can be comforting as well. Regardless of whom you feel closest too, it is okay to ask for support.
9. Talk. Let your family know that it's okay to talk about feelings. Putting on a brave face for the sake of the children usually backfires. Often, honest conversation is the only thing necessary to lift spirits. Children need to know that a caring adult is there to listen when they have something to share or ask. It's essential that adults model positive communication. If the kids know you are sad, too -- but still able to be hopeful and happy -- they will feel much better. A family pizza night where everyone shares memories and feelings would be a great way to begin celebrating the holidays. Look at pictures of past holidays or pass a journal around to share memories to be sent to the deployed person.
10. Spread the cheer. While we often feel we have enough on our hands just taking care of ourselves, reaching out and helping someone else can really change a person’s perspective, including a child’s. Whether it's helping a new military family, donating toys, visiting a nursing home, or simply vowing to genuinely wish everyone you see a happy holiday season, this focus on helping others is not only good for you but a great model for your children, and can help bring families closer together.
Military children cope with so much: new schools, changing neighborhoods, friends who move, and deployed parents. A holiday full of laughter, shared and newly created memories, and quality family time is a truly deserved gift.
Rachel Robertson is an educator and trainer focused on child development. She is also the author of Deployment Journal for Kids, a special place for military kids to record their feelings and events when a loved one is deployed. For more information and special activities for kids going through deployments, visit www.deploymentkids.com