What to Do
As is the case when discussing all sorts of touchy topics, what you do has more weight than what you say to your toddler:
Show your toddler that they she will continue to be loved and cared for. Make sure there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy your little one. Keep fun activities in your regular routine—going to a playground, a neighbor's, or relative's; playing together at home; reading a book; or going for walks. Give your toddler extra hugs, kisses, cuddles, and "I love you"s. Keep routines as consistent as possible. Toddlers feel secure when they know what to expect.
Limit exposure to conversations and media related to the war. Understandably, adults will need to talk about deployment and the war. Try to avoid having these conversations in front of your child and ask others to do the same. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, images of the war from the news and other media should be avoided as they definitely can be disturbing for even the youngest children.
Actively include the deployed parent in conversations and routines. Find ways to include the deployed parent in talks with your toddler. Share memories or things that the other parent likes. Take advantage of technology, such as email (when the parent has access) and photo tools to send little messages: "Daddy loves you and wishes he was here to play." Exchange pictures and notes through the mail. Keep pictures of the parent and your toddler around the house, especially in your toddler's room. When possible, have Mommy or Daddy record their voice reading favorite stories before deployment and include the recordings in your nap or bedtime routine. (For more ideas, see resources below.)
Help your toddler label his feelings. Young toddlers are not able to verbalize strong emotions due to the limits of their just-emerging language. Young toddlers express stress and strong emotions through their actions and behavior. Use words such as happy, sad, and scared to describe their feelings. Role model using words to describe your feelings: This will serve as a blueprint for your toddler as his language continues to develop.
Maintain your support system and get connected. The more support you receive, you feel the better able you will be to support your toddler. Toddlers are aware of the stress of their caregivers and respond to adult distress (this is a skill they learn in early infancy!). Keep connected with friends and family and find other military families who understand the challenges of deployment. Remember, you are very important to your toddler, so it's crucial for you to care for yourself!
Read on for more help on discussing service-related topics with your children:
- The Military Project at Zero to Three
- General tips for talking with older kids about war (from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network)
- Connect with other military families on the BabyZone boards
This information is intended to be a conversation starting point and not to replace consultation with a mental health professional. Knowing your child the way you do, adjust or edit this script and these recommendations to meet his or her needs and comprehension. If you have concerns about your toddler, contact your pediatrician and request a referral for a mental health professional who specializes in work with young children. Click here to find help for working with your child through this and other touchy topics.