When Mommy or Daddy is a Soldier: Helping Kids Cope with Long-term Separation

Thousands of American troops have already left for overseas duty and many more are expected to follow in the upcoming weeks. What’s more, a large number of these departing soldiers have spouses and young children, making the pain of saying good-bye to loved ones all the more difficult.  

“In most cases, children are terrified by the prospect of war. This fear is magnified even more for those with family in the armed forces,” says Naomi Drew, author of Hope and Healing: Raising Peaceful Children in an Uncertain World. “Children live by routines, such as eating dinner at a certain time or having a bedtime story read to them every night. These routines make them feel safe and in control. When a routine is broken—in this case, the absence of a parent for an unspecified period of time—a child may begin to feel helpless and adrift.”

That’s why it’s important, Drew says, for the parents and caregivers at home to maintain their children's more comforting routines—and to create new ones. “Meditation, prayer, calming music, singing, cuddling, lighting candles—these are soothing activities that can bring a tremendous sense of peace to children and parents alike,” Drew reminds.      

Saying Goodbye
Coping with the emotional hardship of separation is nothing new for military families. For generations, American troops have left their families and friends to fight in wars on foreign soil. And for generations, their loved ones have kept vigil, anxiously awaiting and praying for their safe return.   

To help military families manage long-term separation, the U.S. Army Family Readiness Handbook offers these survival strategies:

  • Bring the children to their mother’s or father’s point of departure, even if it means taking them out of school for the day. This allows them to say a formal goodbye to their parent at a location where other children are doing the same. The group experience will show them that they are not alone and that it’s OK to feel sad.


  • After they’ve said goodbye to their mother or father, take the children on a planned outing, such as to the mall or the zoo. There’s no need to return to an empty house immediately.

  • Befriend fellow “waiting” families and form a support network. It’s comforting to know that others are experiencing the same emotions and fears as you. And because a household can become even more difficult to manage when one parent is away, help out each other by assisting with chores, hosting pot-luck suppers, and taking the kids on group outings.

  • Tell the children’s teachers that their mother or father is away on military duty. Ask that you be made immediately aware of any behavioral changes or concerns. Because routines make children feel safe and secure, work closely with their teachers to ensure that they carry on their schooling and other activities just as if their mother or father were home.

  • Have the children write letters (or e-mails, if possible) to their absent parent regularly. Place a picture of their mother or father next to the children as they pen their letters. This will help them imagine they are talking directly to their mother or father. Jazz up letters by including family snapshots, funny jokes and crayon drawings. Also, if writing at length is difficult, consider sending postcards instead. Receiving notes frequently (and regularly) is more important than the length of the message.