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Deployed Military Fathers Can Still be Great Parents

Even overseas, deployed fathers can stay connected with their kids.

Deployed but not absent. That's the theme of some wonderful research being done with fathers in all branches of the military by Elaine Willerton and her colleagues at Purdue University's Military Family Research Institute. Through interviews with 71 fathers, Willerton heard just how much deployed dad's think about their children and how much effort dads make to stay connected.

From the child's point of view, that's good news as anything that can be done to ease the burden of separation and maintain continuity of the parent-child attachment is going to help a child avoid feeling abandoned. It's also going to make children feel that their dads are still in their lives, watching what they're up to. Though deployed fathers can find it difficult to discipline their children (an often futile exercise when done from a distance), children who know that their fathers care are children that are more likely to keep behaving as they know they should.

Deployed dads told Willerton that they did lots of things to make sure their kids knew dad was thinking about them. They create a psychological presence even though their deployment often makes them miss many of their children's important milestones, like birthdays and graduations. Even when at home, the intensity of the work they do can make it seem like dad is unavailable. Many fathers said they felt like their service is an enormous sacrifice leaving their kids thinking they can count on dad for absolutely nothing.

It doesn't have to be like that. Fathers who are deployed use lots of clever strategies to stay connected with their kids.
• They plan memories. They make sure that when they're home they spend time with their kids, having special outings that leave memories behind.
• They hold off-the-clock holidays. If dad always cooks the Thanksgiving turkey and he's going to be deployed at that time then there's nothing to stop the family holding Thanksgiving months earlier. It's the same with a child's birthday. It's a great idea to hold a celebration while dad is still there.
• Making memories has become much easier with digital cameras. Lots of dads take pictures while away to remind kids where dad is.
• Skype calls, email, text messages, and live chat, are all great ways for dads to stay connected. They are also ways that tech savvy kids appreciate. There's lots of evidence that teens especially might be more comfortable chatting via email than talking by phone.

In fact, according to Willerton, four big lessons deployed dad's need to learn are:
1. Stay connected if and when you can. Tell your kids about what you're doing, at least the parts that won't frighten them. Reassure them you're safe.
2. Encourage your spouse who is still at home to be a gatekeeper to communication. Ask your spouse to remind the kids to call or write often.
3. Learn how to communicate with your kids differently as they get older. As kids change, what we say and how has to change too. A 5-year-old might babble away on the phone, but a moody teen might find the intimacy of a phone call too much to handle and prefer to text or email. You'll also need to remember that when you come home your children will have changed developmentally and that will take some getting used to. House rules, curfews, chores and even the questions they ask are all likely to be very different.
4. Remember that as a parent to your child, you are never forgotten.

Deployed or at home, a dad is still a dad and his children need to know he's thinking about them. The better dads are at creating memories, the better kids will cope with the separation.

More from Michael Ungar Ph.D.
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