Daddy Left And Daughter Is Struggling

Dear Mamas,

My husband is a Marine who’s been deployed to Afghanistan. We have a three-year-old daughter who is the apple of his eye. He left one month ago and my daughter is really missing him. She is very clingy and gets really upset if I have to leave her. She has also started waking up in the middle of the night even though she was a great sleeper before. I don’t know what to do about all this. She keeps asking where her daddy is. Do I tell her he’s very brave and fighting in the war? I just don’t know. And my mother-in-law is over often and talks about how worried she is about her son. Please give me some advice.

Thanks, Marissa

Dear Marissa,

Wow, This must be really hard on you both, especially during the holidays. I hope that you have a lot of support around you–friends and family who can help to keep your spirits up and things moving along while your husband is deployed.

It’s great that you are so observant of the changes in your daughter’s behavior and ready to jump in and help her deal with the loss that she is experiencing. The behaviors you described are pretty typical of what can show up when children are going through a crisis. Even though she is so young, she feels the loss keenly and worries about you, too.

You might also notice some regression in her behavior. This means that she might have gone backwards a little in her ability to do things that she had mastered before. Like maybe she needs her pacifier more often or is sucking her thumb a lot. She may have more temper tantrums or start wetting her pants, even though she is potty-trained. She might be more aggressive or show changes in her eating habits. She might be harder to comfort when she is upset. These are all signs that she is stressed and having a tough time coping.

Military families face some very challenging circumstances that can trigger a whole host of difficult emotions and reactions. For example, you yourself might be having problems sleeping or eating and may feel a constant sense of worry or anxiety that colors most of your day. You might feel angry about his deployment, or sad or generally irritable. The fact that there is nothing you can do to change the situation for him can leave you feeling frustrated or hopeless.

None of these feelings are unusual, given your situation. But that doesn’t mean you should just try to tough it out on your own. In order to manage well until he comes home, you’ve got to focus on doing things that will strengthen you, so that you can take good care of your daughter.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again–our children are so emotionally wired to us that it’s almost eerie. So if we are really struggling, chances are they will be, too. Our first inclination may be to be self-sacrificing but that is not necessarily the most responsible approach. I always think of the airplane announcement that reminds us to get our own oxygen mask on first, before attaching one to our kids. If we pass out, we won’t be much help to them.

Here are some specific things that you can do that will really help:

1. Keep a regular routine going. Get up in the morning, and get your day started. Have nutritious meals at regular times, exercise, and take your daughter to the park or pre-school or wherever you usually go with her. Basically, try to do whatever you were doing before the deployment.

2. Avoid anxiety-producing people and situations. Stay away from the worry-warts, the drama queens and television and news stories that increase feelings of stress or uncertainty.

3. Stay connected to your husbands unit or your Family Readiness Unit to make sure you are getting accurate updates and not dwelling in the land of  “I wonder how, where, what…etc.”

4. Keep good friends around. Don’t isolate yourself. You certainly aren’t alone, and it would be wise for you to get some additional support from other military spouses who are going through the same thing.

5. If you feel like it’s really hard, talk to a counselor or mental health professional. Asking for help during an intense period doesn’t mean you’re a light weight. Life throws us all into the ditch at times. The smart ones do whatever they can to get out of it as fast as possible. Be the smart one.

With respect to your daughter you can do a lot to help her cope, too.

1. Tell your mother-in-law and your friends NOT to discuss their worries about your husband or the war in front of your daughter. She cannot understand any of it and the emotional overload can really distress and upset her.

2. Give her a lot of extra attention. Cuddle up together and read books, or watch a lighthearted video. Play, play, play. Walk, visit friends and do things that are fun and relaxing.

3. Have more patience with her. Use diversion when she gets testy or whiny. Understand that her clinginess or fear of separation is normal right now. Be extra gentle, calm and available and be sure to maintain her schedule. This will help her feel safer.

4. Answer her questions but keep your answers age-appropriate. You can say that Daddy is away working and cannot come home for awhile but that he loves you very much. Help her write a letter or make a drawing to send to him. Keep the tone light.

5. Help her verbalize her feelings and offer ways to express them through play or art. Don’t shy away from the anger or fear that might come up. Keep your tone respectful but neutral and calm.

6. Don’t watch the news about the war on television when she is around. You will be anxious and she will pick that up.

If you can pay attention to some of these suggestions, you will be doing a tremendous amount to help your daughter come through this challenging time. Really! There’s no reason to think that she and you cannot get through this. You are stronger than you might think.

Good luck Marissa. Know that we are thinking of you both and sending our best wishes your way.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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