Many parents wonder how to explain the deployment of a parent to a young toddler whose language is just emerging. How much information is enough or too much? Should you mention war? Indeed, deployment of mom or dad does affect children, and they will need extra support and comfort with simple explanations.
What They Understand
Toddlers don't comprehend the complexities of war and international conflict. But they are deeply affected by the absence of their parent and the reactions of the close adults around them. They are sensitive to changes in routine due to the changes in responsibilities when one parent is away, and they will feel a sense of loss when a parent is deployed. (This is similar to how kids feel upon the separation of their parents.)
For families who are directly impacted by the war, it will be important to have discussions about war and the military when your child is older, moving into the preschool and school age years.
What to Say
It is not necessary to talk to young toddlers about war since they cannot comprehend the meaning—in fact, mentioning fighting or conflict may increase their anxiety. Older children will be able to have conversations about the military and war (see resources below for help), but for young toddlers, keeping explanations simple will be most helpful.
Try this sort of explanation to get started. Adjust depending on who is in your family:
Mommy needs to go away for awhile for work. Daddy [or whoever the caregiver is] will take care of you—feed you, put you to bed, play with you, hug you… Mommy loves you and Daddy loves you.
When your toddler asks the inevitable, "Where's Mommy?" reiterate: "Mommy is away [or at work] but she loves you very much and is thinking about you." You can help your toddler identify feelings by stating "I miss Daddy too."
Young toddlers cannot understand time, so they won't understand if you tell them about a parent's return date in the future. Instead, pass the time you do have together but looking at pictures together of the missing family member, especially ones that include the whole family together.