March can sometimes feel like a season of waiting, especially after the long and brutal winter much of the country has endured this year. As kids (and parents) battle the inevitable cabin fever and long for spring, patience tends to run short. But cabin fever can be even harder on families who already have plenty of patience-sapping challenges to deal with, such as military families coping with the deployment of a loved one.
We reached out to our partners at Blue Star Families and our friend Sarah Smiley, military spouse and author of the bestselling book Dinner with the Smileys, to ask for their best advice on helping the whole family stay calm and connected when patience runs thin during a deployment. Here are their top tips:
- Keep a journal.
When a loved one is away, waiting to tell them things or share important occurrences with them can be torturous, especially for younger kids. Sarah recommends that every member of the family use a journal to help provide a place for storing those memories until the service member gets home. “They can make it like a scrapbook – pasting movie ticket stubs, report cards, etc. inside. When their loved one returns, they can read the journal with them start to finish like a book,” Sarah recommends. She also points out that children often won’t remember things that have happened more than 1-2 months ago, which can be a source of frustration for everyone.
Set aside a few minutes during family dinners to decide what each family member might want to record in their journals for that day or week; you might even provide materials for kids to draw or write with between dinner and dessert. Creating the journals can help trigger memories and provide a calming structure that gives each family member a place to keep their news and stories, making it easier to stay patient while waiting for the service member’s return.
- Make plans together.
It’s not only family members at home who may find patience hard to come by during a deployment. Service members who are away from their families need to feel connected to life back home as well. Blue Star Families recommends using the power of the internet to help the service member and the family stay connected and make decisions about future events. For example, you might send a monthly email with upcoming events and expenses, asking for the deployed service member’s input on creating the household budget. Or you could schedule times to have private phone calls or Skype sessions to shop together online for birthday or holiday gifts, or even for a special item that the whole family can look forward to enjoying together when the service member returns home.
Have family members make suggestions, create wish lists, and add items to the calendar during dinner on a regular basis so that everyone can be a part of the process. Making an effort to keep the service member connected to the daily life of the household and to plan together for upcoming events and milestones can help take the focus off the absence.
- Be smart about Skype.
…Or Facetime, or any other real-time communication method. Sarah points out that while technology can be wonderful for military families, it can also be challenging for children. “They are distracted by their own face on the screen, and it’s hard to have a meaningful conversation when they are making faces or fighting with their siblings for screen time. I let each of our children Skype with their dad in a private setting, which cut down on the sibling rivalry, and their dad was ready with conversation starters (What’s your favorite subject at school? Who do you sit with at lunch?) to keep them focused.”
To help foster positive communication, share some of our conversation starters with the deployed service member, so he or she can choose a few ahead of time. If all family members know that there’s a scheduled time for each of them to have a meaningful conversation, patience will be in much greater supply, and the interactions will be more positive.
- Foster traditions.
Whether it’s joining a holiday toast, reading a book together, or singing “Happy Birthday,” our friends at Blue Star Families point out that it’s crucial for service members to have the opportunity to take an active role in what’s happening at home. But you don’t have to limit your fun to established special occasions. Creating new rituals that you all participate in regularly can provide a structured way for everyone in the family to mark the passage of time while a loved one is deployed, and help younger children to develop patience. After all, it’s much easier to wait between Friday night stories via Skype than it is for a young child to understand longer stretches of time with no set touchpoint for interaction.
While we usually frown on tech at the table, one of our favorite ways to create a strong tradition during deployment is to try to have the service member join in on a weekly dinner via computer or phone. If dinner is impossible, try breakfast or even a late-night snack.
While it’s never easy to be separated from loved ones for any length of time, taking steps to ensure that family members have plenty of opportunities to connect and feel included in each other’s daily lives can ease some of the challenges of deployment. These tips can help everyone stay patient during the separation period, while also ensuring that the service member feels loved and remembered while away from home.