In my work with military families, the issue of safety comes up a lot, particularly regarding children’s concerns for the safety of their deployed or soon-to-be-deploying service member. This concern can be especially prevalent in the wake of news of another community member’s injury or passing. While we want to ease the fears and worries of our children, not to mention our own, we also wrestle with the understanding that there is an inherent risk of safety whenever our service member is deployed. We want to make our kids feel better, and we don’t want to lie to them, but we don’t want to scare them, either.
How do I talk to my kids about safety?
***Note: These tips can also be adapted to help non-military families talk about safety. For example, families who have a parent that travels a lot and the child(ren) worry about the parent’s safety while traveling and/or the at-home family’s safety while that parent is away.
Children sometimes ask questions and state concerns about deployment and the safety of their parents. These questions may come up at any time in the deployment cycle. Here are a few tips for talking about safety:
Ask if your child has any specific questions or concerns.
Most children are exposed to some world events thru television, radio, internet, and/or friends. Children may worry about something they heard or saw, but don’t necessarily understand. Ask if/what your child may be worried about to open the door to communication. Follow-up in response with, “What do you think?” to get a better idea of what/how much they already “know.” This then gives you the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings, or false beliefs, and provide honest, age-appropriate information.
And, just by asking, you also lets your child know that it’s OK to be worried or scared, and that it’s OK to talk about it. Research shows us that children, particularly older children, often take on additional responsibilities and care-taking roles during a deployment, including trying to take care of their at-home parent. Sometimes this may prevent them from expressing their worries or fears because they do not want to add to their parents already overflowing plate. Opening the door to this conversation yourself, instead of waiting for your child to bring it up, can be a great reminder that you are still there and never too busy to talk.
Remind your child of the security that comes from the deployed parent’s skills, preparation, and training.
Just like your child practices to get better at a sport or musical instrument, his/her parents practice, too. Military parents have prepared and practiced with a team to learn how to stay safe and protect each other while they are working. Talking about these similarities with your children is a great, concrete way to help them better understand some of the ways their service member stays safe. You can also connect how the child learns new skills and works as a team in school to the training the service member receives with his/her co-workers.
Identify all the things the service member uses to stay safe.
Talk with your child about the parent’s gear and uniform. If possible, allow children to interact with and feel the heft and weight of the helmet, the pants, the boots and other items. While describing the importance of each item, explain how it helps to keep people safe. For example, “This is the helmet that protects dad’s head.” “This is the vest that protects mom’s chest and back.” “Dad’s parka protects them from the rain and snow.”
Using this hands-on approach allows them to feel and see the uniform and safety gear. This hands-on interaction can be informative and reassuring for your child.
You can also identify the different things you use as a family to stay safe at home. This may include wearing your seat belts in the car, helmets when riding bikes, using cell phones to communicate in a crowded mall or store, or the use of fire alarms to alert you to any potential fire. This may help your child relate his/her personal experiences to that of his/her service member.
Support your child’s connection to the deployed parent using available communication.