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Setting the stage for a great homecoming

Posted: December 3, 2013

The reuniting of a family after deployment is one of those moments that everyone wants to be perfect in every way!

But when very young children are involved it can end up being a big, emotional mess. You can do a lot to help military parents plan a homecoming that takes into account the needs of their youngest children and, as a result, will be memorable in all the best ways.

Military families all look forward to that magical moment when Mom or Dad reunites with the children they've missed so much while they've been deployed. The moment of surprise, the hugs, the kisses, the tears of joy, the smiles…and all is right with the world.

…except that it doesn't always work out quite that way, especially with very young children. The magic moment that was planned can suddenly turn into an emotional nightmare and a lot of disappointment. Why? The reasons are mostly developmental. One of the best things that caregivers can do to support reuniting families is to share this information with parents as they plan for their reunion.

Do I know you?

Very young children relate to their world, and the people in it, through their senses and through physical interactions. These are experiences that little ones have been missing with their absent parent. Although video technology has helped somewhat, seeing and hearing Daddy on a small, flat computer screen is a very different experience than being face to face with the full-size, 3-D version of Daddy! Particularly for a child between nine and eighteen months who is just beginning to understand and depend on the strong attachments he has to his daily caregivers, the sudden presence of a mostly-strange person who wants to hold and cuddle him is overwhelming, confusing and even sometimes frightening. If a parent doesn't know to expect a cautious response from their young child, it can be very disappointing.

The message for parents

Most children age three and under who have been separated from their parent for more than a few weeks will need time to feel comfortable and connect with their returning parent.

Overwhelmed by excitement

Another element that can throw very young children for a loop is the sheer excitement level surrounding homecoming. Feeling the high emotional current of the adults around them, without understanding what's going on, is confusing for most little ones and even upsetting. In addition, the commotion in the days leading up to the reunion and the ceremony itself may result in a tired little one who is out of her routine and has the cranky disposition to prove it.

The message for parents:

Even amidst the preparations, maintain as much of the child's routine as possible. Depending on the child's age and temperament, it may be more appropriate to not bring her to the actual homecoming ceremony itself but instead reintroduce Mom or Dad in the comfort and calm of home.

The element of surprise

Although most adults love the element of surprise (especially when they are the one doing the surprising), many young children don't handle big surprises well. Sometimes it's due to a more cautious, low-key temperament. Other times it's a function of age and the ability to comprehend what's happening. A basic rule of thumb is the older and more outgoing the child, the more he or she will enjoy being surprised. A better plan is to talk with the child about what to expect, using very concrete language ("Daddy will be in his uniform. He'll be coming out of the airplane. He'll be so happy to see you! Then he'll come to our house. You can show him your toys.") This is something the child care provider can reinforce with the child as well. Giving the child something to look forward to is much more likely to create the happy scene the returning parent wants than a surprise will.

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The message for parents:

To the degree possible, give very young children plenty of advance notice that Mom or Dad is coming home. Paint a positive, concrete picture of what they can look forward to when he or she returns. Rather than surprising children, invite them to help with preparations for the homecoming.

Supporting young children in child care

Expect to see changes in children's behavior at child care and offer them predictability, support and extra attention and affection. Talk with them in age-appropriate ways about what's happening, what to expect, and how they are feeling about the whole situation. Don't be surprised or disapproving if the child expresses reluctance or worry about the parent coming home – it's all part of readjusting to big, big change! Be a good listener. Try not to tell the child what he should be thinking or feeling. Offer reassurance about the things that won't change and about the positive changes that will come. And finally, be patient. This is a huge change in a young child's life, one that even the adults in the family may at times be overwhelmed by. Providers can play a major supporting role for the child by offering a solid foundation while the rest of their world shifts.

Resources to share with parents

Share these resources so that parents can talk them over as a family. Parents could also be encouraged to share the resources with grandparents and others who may be pushing for a big, exciting homecoming production.

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Setting the stage for a great homecoming

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Contact Information

Claudia Mincemoyer
  • Professor, Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education
Phone: 814-863-7851