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Reintegration | Children and Reunion
Change is at least as stressful for children as it is for adults. The homecoming of the military member is a major change for the children in the household. They have grown physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually during the deployment. Children are not skilled at coping with their stress in large part because they have little life experience. As a result, they may temporarily act out or regress to a less mature stage of behavior as a part of their reaction. In any event, there will be a readjustment period-- typically 4 to 6 weeks--for the entire family. You can greatly enhance your family's reunion by developing realistic expectations of how your child will respond to the military parent's return based upon the child's age. So let's discuss what you can generally expect of different age children, and how you can facilitate the reunion process with your children. As you know, children are not "miniature adults," but rather developing individuals who change rapidly in their thought and behavior patterns. So, a 1 year-old and a 5 year-old will respond very differently to your returning.
Infants (Birth to 1 year)
An infant has not yet developed much of an ability to remember people and events. Accordingly, as painful as this might be for you to consider, do not expect baby to recognize the parent who has returned from a long deployment. Instead, expect him/her to initially react as if the military parent were a stranger. The infant will likely cry when held by the military parent, pull away, fuss, and cling to the person who was his/her primary caregiver during the deployment. Once again, "go slow." The baby will "warm up" to the military parent at his/her own pace. The newly returned parent should gently get involved in holding, hugging, bathing, feeding, playing with, and otherwise caring for the baby. The key is to be patient and let your baby's reactions be your guide in terms of what pace to proceed in getting acquainted.
Toddlers (1 - 3 years)
A typical toddler response would be to hide from the newly returned parent, to cling to his/her primary caregiver, cry, and perhaps regress to soiling if he/she is potty trained. Again, give your child space and time to warm up to the military parent. It helps for the military parent to sit at eye level with your child (to look less intimidating) and talk with him/her. A gentle offer by the military parent to play with the toddler may be helpful, but do not force the issue. Doing so will only intensify your child's discomfort and resistance. Also, it may have helped the child to more clearly remember the deployed parent if the stay behind caregiver frequently showed him/her pictures of the military member and said "Daddy" or "Mommy," as the case may be. This is true because for children at this age, the old adage "out of sight, out of mind" aptly applies.
Preschoolers (3 - 5 years)
Children in this age range tend to think as though the world revolved around them (egocentric thinking). Keeping that in mind, it's not surprising that your preschooler may think he/she somehow made the military parent go away. Or that the military parent left because he or she no longer cared about the child. If this is the case with your preschooler, he or she may feel guilty or abandoned. As a result, your child may express intense anger as a way of keeping the military parent at a distance, thereby "protecting" himself/herself from further disappointment. Your preschooler is also likely to do some limit testing (see if familiar rules still apply). To promote the reunion process, wise parents will accept the child's feelings, not act overly concerned, and focus on rewarding positive behaviors. It is good for the military parent to talk with the toddler about his or her areas of interest, be it storybooks, toys, or whatever and give the preschooler some undivided attention. Meanwhile, the military parent should support the other parent's enforcement of family rules but be careful about too quickly stepping into an authoritative role. The toddler needs time to adjust to the military parent once again being an active participant in his/her life.
School Age (5 - 12 years)
Children in this age range are likely to give returning parents a very warm reception if the parent-child relationship was strong before the separation. The school age child may excitedly run to the military parent as soon as the parent gets off the plane. He/she will be inclined to try to monopolize the military parent's attention and "talk your ear off" during the drive home and then want to showoff scrapbooks, hobby items, or school projects when the military parent gets home. If, on the other hand, the military parent's relationship with the school age child was strained, the child may fear the military parent will punish him/her for all the child's misbehavior during the deployment. Such a thought process may lead the child to at first be shy or withdrawn around the newly returned parent. At any rate, it is best for the military parent to have friendly interest in what the child has done during the time of deployment and praise him/her for his/her efforts and accomplishments.
Adolescent (13 - 18 years)
As you already know if you're the parent of an adolescent, they can have mood swings that go up and down like a roller coaster. One moment they are solving problems in a reasonable and logical way and the next may be reacting in a purely emotional and childlike fashion. So, your adolescent's reaction to your return may be characterized by mixed emotions. Like the school age child, your adolescent will likely be very excited to see the military parent again, if the relationship was amicable prior to the deployment. Sometimes, however, adolescents are reticent to publicly express their emotions and may be more concerned about acting "cool" in front of their peers. Adolescents tend to be very sensitive about being unfavorably judged or criticized. With this in mind, be sure to make time to discuss with your adolescent what is going on in his/her life as well as what you've experienced. As with sons and daughters of any age, it's critical to give your adolescent some of each parent's undivided pleasant attention.
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