There has been little research on how children react to the military deployment of their parents. A study examining Norwegian children’s emotions and experiences with deployed parents was therefore conducted by Hilde Lindboe, HR- and Communication Adviser in the Norwegian Armed Forces.

I was and still am incredibly proud of my dad. He was helping. Even though I suffered the months he was away, it is important to remember that those poor people had it worse. He was down there to help them.

From Hilde Lindboe’s study “When mum or dad goes to war”

The study showed that children experience the absence of a parent as a great emotional challenge. Secure family relationships seem to be vital for the children’s ability to cope with the situation. Good relationships with friends, the military organisation and school also support coping ability. Children perceive the deployment as a family project. They are engaged in managing the situation and getting recognition for their own as well as the family’s contribution to the project.

Good communication and information helps children cope with the situation. Even though the children in this study didn’t seem to be at risk for severe negative consequences, their parent’s job still significantly affected their lives.

The study indicated that children’s motivation to cope with the situation should be taken seriously; their contributions should be recognised rather than solely focusing on the challenges they experience.

Provide the children with sufficient information about the absent parent to understand the situation. Ask them if they would like to know more.

Managing the logistics of everyday life can be challenging when one parent is deployed. Include the children; let them contribute by choosing tasks they can be responsible for. Ask family or friends for practical help such as pick-up from day-care, transport to/from activities, grocery shopping etc.

Key points for parents to consider

  • Separation over time is stressful for children. Some display strong reactions; others few or none. Temporary reactions are normal and should be understood based on the child’s situation.
  • Anger, sadness, anxiety and challenging behaviour are common. Some children act younger than their age. Children need secure and regulating adults. Adjust school schedule and tasks based on the child’s current capacity.
  • Many children find it natural to do other things while talking, such as drawing or going for a walk. Adults can initiate conversations, without insisting. A safe and predictable framework should be established, with positive activities that calm and regulate the child.
  • If difficulties increase, interventions should be implemented both at school and at home. Focus on calming the child. Breaks and physical activity in the company of trusted others can have a positive effect.
  • The absence of a parent can lead to practical challenges at home. Consider homework assistance or other relief measures. Information to the class, teachers and parents of fellow students can be useful.