WHEN A PARENT IS CALLED TO WAR

Q. My soldier son has just deployed to Iraq for his second tour of duty. His wife and three sons, ages 9 to 2 1/2, live at Ft. Hood, Texas. I want to add something that has helped our family: Web cams and computer speakers. We gave them to our daughter-in-law and our son during his last tour of duty and we have sent him a new set for this deployment. As soon as our son has his set up and running, they will be able to see and talk to each other via the Internet.

This makes a tremendous difference for spouses and children caught up in this war. The 2 1/2 year-old cries more for his dad that the others because he doesn’t understand what has happened. He just knows that his dad flew away in a plane with other soldiers. We tell him that his dad will come back. He does understand that.

A. Thank you for your great ideas and for the help they will be for all families with loved ones deployed overseas. Certainly Web cams and the Internet can be a great help in keeping families in touch. Maybe you can even record some of these special moments so that the children can go over and over them.

I have recommended leaving several DVDs or videotapes of parents reading bedtime stories so that children can be lulled to sleep by parents who are too far away to tuck them in. Your youngest grandchild may find comfort in a piece of Daddy’s clothing as a “lovey” to cuddle and to fall back on when he’s upset or frightened. Even his smell may be comforting at such a time. He is certainly old enough to sense the distress his mother must feel — another reason for his tears.

Of course a worried family member can’t hide such feelings. Instead they can be explained simply in terms that very young children can understand: “Mommy misses Daddy. I know you do too.”

The older children can be suffering because they do understand too well the separation issues as well as the dangers. Although they may seem under control on the surface, they deserve special times with their mother to unload their feelings, their questions, and to share her sadness. They also certainly need to have a chance for their own concerns to be heard. They will be relieved to speak openly but may also feel proud that through this sharing they are helping her. For the most mature children, and for adults, the terror of losing a military family member is all the worse with the current uncertainty about what this war could possibly accomplish and how it will ever end.

Family meals become even more important now. The family can pray together for their father’s safety and quick return. Then, too, they can share their feelings as a family, “We all miss him terribly and need to see his face and hear his voice.” Meanwhile, each of the boys will learn most from the mother’s strengths and her ability to share those — and her moments of vulnerability — with them.

If we can give anything to children who must suffer in this dreadful war, it will be the sense of having made it through the trauma of separation and loss and of learning how to be resilient. We pray with you that your son returns safely, and wish that all of our brave men and women could.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.