While there are many challenges associated with being a military family, one of the most difficult is coping with stress when the active duty member is deployed. Military children may also experience this stress despite the love and reassurance of family at home. Beginning with the first deployment, increased feelings of anger, loneliness and fear start to shape a military child’s mind.
Much of this anxiety in children can develop because they lack control over their situation and the coping skills associated with separation.
Finding new ways to relax, express emotion and connect with the deployed service member can help the military child, the parent at home AND the deployed service member overcome separation anxiety. It can provide the opportunity to build resilience in children and a form a bond between those left behind that might not have been made otherwise.
Because every child reacts differently to a parent’s deployment, it is generally a good idea to check in with a child’s thoughts and emotions throughout the deployment cycle and reintegration period.
Art therapy can help you gauge what concerns a child might have.
If you have more than one child, I recommend doing these projects one-on-one if possible. Children will appreciate the individual attention. Also, if you do these activities as a group, realize that children may begin to express their siblings’ concerns, rather than their own. Be sure to give your military child as much creative control as possible when doing activities. Spend more time creating and listening than talking. Make it fun. It’s about the creation of the art, not the art itself.
Here are a few ideas that utilize art therapy:
1. Word Marbles
Create a box of word marbles. Have your child(ren) write down a few words to put on the back of a glass marble. Ask them, “What words would make all the difference in the world right now?” Rearrange the words to make sentences. Maybe sit down once a week (or month) and ask the same question. Pull out words from before to see if they still resonate. Video demo here.
2. Art Emotions Color Wheel
Ask your child(ren) to write down any negative emotions they are feeling. Then ask what positive emotions they have. Draw a circle and divide it into sections. Label each section with the words the child chose. Let them color an image to best describe each emotion. Mandala activities can be good for your child and YOU, so join in!
3. Pet Worry Monster
Take a shoebox and create a monster! Remember to cut out a hole for the mouth. When your child is done with his or her monster box, instruct your child to write down his or her worries and feed them to the pet monster. You may want to ask your child to read the notes before putting them in the Worry Monster or for permission to read them later.
4. Hand Control
Show your child what he or she can control by placing a hand on a sheet of paper and outlining it. Have your child list five things that he or she can not control outside the outline (ie. parent’s deployment, the weather, other friend’s behavior). Then list five things that he or she CAN control on each finger/palm (ie. My attitude, My behavior, My reactions, my words.) Discuss each.
5. Model Military Kid
Let your child imagine him/herself on the cover of a magazine. Have them draw a picture of themselves (a headshot or doing something). Use words from magazine or newspaper clippings for the headlines. Ask your child(ren), “What would the headlines be?” “What reason would you be on the cover for?” “What are your strengths?” “What makes you a ‘model’ military kid?” Let them know why YOU think they deserve recognition for being an exemplary military kid.
6. Art Journal
Older kids may like to create an art journal to document their emotional journey. Give them some ideas from the Mindful Art Studio on how to draw/paint/collage their emotions. Provide them with the tools to create, but then give them complete freedom to express themselves. Set a goal for your child to document one of their emotions for that day/week in their art journal. An eight-month deployment can provide a lot of insight to a parent and child about the emotional ups and downs of a military child when you can actually see it play out page after page.
7. Mail Art
Children in the early stages of school−Preschool through first grade−will come home will plenty of artwork no doubt. Send them to your service member in a care package! Older kids may want to write a handwritten letter. This will help you ALL feel connected. You can even send a hug. Again, trace your child’s hands on a piece of paper and glue the kid-hand cut outs to each side of a ribbon. Your child will feel confident in knowing they can still encourage a smile and give a hug to their deployed parent!
Reassure your children during these bonding activities that they are strong while also helping them understand the important work their parent is doing. Let them know that it is OK to have mixed (or “medium−kinda happy kinda sad”) emotions. They can be worried and proud at the same time! As they work through their concerns, questions and loneliness, you will reach a better understanding of one another. Plus, your children will know you care enough to sit with them and work through the deployment together.
Seek Professional Help if your child seems to exhibit any irrational worries or become overly/progressively concerned or difficult to the point of acting out. These art therapy activities will allow you to assess your own child periodically to see how they are adjusting. Military Kids Connect provides a great list of typical behaviors of children during deployment and red flags for possible concern. You can view these lists here under “Helping Children Cope with Deployment.”
Consult your doctor if you sense any red flags such as aggression or violence, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, drastic mood swings or refusal to participate in activities they would normally enjoy.
If your children want to express themselves through art, you may want to sign them up for a healing arts program. Americans for the Arts and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center co-lead the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military, in partnership with a National Steering Committee comprised of federal agency, military, nonprofit and private sector partners; you have many resources at your fingertips!
Stay Positive. It is a good idea for the parent at home to maintain routines, talk with children and to stay calm and in-control as children will model your behavior and reactions. Consider the deployment an opportunity to teach young children about clocks, calendars and geography. Have them help you with “Deployment Walls” and “Countdown Jars.” You can find many ideas like these on Pinterest that help children visualize the idea that deployment is only temporary while providing yet another artistic outlet for expression.
Help children learn to cope with the stress of deployment. Art therapy can help children explore their emotions and express feelings they may not fully comprehend or realize they have.
What types of artistic activities do you do with your children during deployments? How do they help you cope? Type them in the comments below!