Fort Lee, Va. -- Army spouse Jenille Clay and her children had everything in place to celebrate the birthday of her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Donnell Clay, back in 2003. "We baked cupcakes and decorated them," she recalled. "We put birthday hats on, decorated the kitchen, sang 'Happy Birthday' for dad and took pictures." There was only one thing wrong with that picture - dad was more than 7,000 miles away in Iraq supporting the War on Terror. He received the pictures via e-mail. Donnell Clay's absentee birthday party wasn't quite the real thing, said Mrs. Clay, but it was one way to continue on with the everyday instances of life. "I try to keep things as normal as possible, as if he were here," she said. Clay is one of numerous military spouses who have found that normal routines and communication are keys to filling in the spaces left when a military member deploys. Those factors are critical to the well-being of military children, whose Families may relocate six to nine times during their parent's 20-year career. They're not likely to have any say in deciding where or when they'll move and face the unique challenges of re-adjusting to new schools and new neighborhoods and making new friends at critical developmental stages of their lives. Lorna King, an Army spouse and the Relocation, Mobilization and Deployment Program manager at Army Community Service, said those challenges are compounded by current deployment rates that have military members deploying about every two years. Those conditions can make for a volatile Family environment. "Any time a Family has to be separated from one another, I think you are disturbing that Family routine," she said. "When routines are disturbed, people change." Those changes can manifest themselves into emotional problems that affect academic performance and interpersonal relationships, said King. "The effect of a deployment or separation on some children can be enormous," she said. "It causes a lot of instability in young peoples minds." Clay, a former Soldier herself, said she didn't change much around the house the first time her husband deployed. She continued with the same routines, dinner at the same time and movie night on Saturday nights. She also learned to keep her two boys - 10-year-old Brandon and 7-year-old Donovan - busy with regular, recurring activities when their father is deployed. That, she said, keeps them from dwelling on the obvious. "The first time my husband was deployed, my oldest son played football, basketball and soccer," she said, noting that as one season ended she'd sign him up for the next. "The whole idea was to keep him busy." Clay said her children haven't shown any significant negative effects from being separated from their dad. "They do well in school and I haven't seen them act out or anything like that," she said. King said another strategy that parents can employ is to talk about family member expectations before deployments. "Everyone needs to know what their roles are during the separation," she said, "so when they come back together, their readjustment is not a strange one." Talking about the deployment with children before it happens is important, but allowing children to stay in touch and establishing a dialogue with the parent is critical. Clay said that she either e-mails or calls her husband just about every day and allows the kids to talk. They cover everything from school to chores to sports. Clay even lets her 17-month toddler talk to her father. "When he calls, he'll get on the phone with her and she'll talk to him," she said. "When he sends pictures, she'll stare at the computer and say, 'That's my daddy!'" Michelle Zeller, the 49th Quartermaster Group's family readiness support assistant, said that no matter how connected children are to deployed parents, there will be times when they miss parents' physical presence. "They're human too and they have their ups and downs," said the wife of a Soldier and mother of two. "They can grow tired of a deployment, so as a parent, you have to step up your game a little bit and re-evaluate how you're keeping them connected. You can do it by web-cam, e-mail, letters or care packages - anything to stay connected." There are a number of resources available to military members and their families to help them through deployments and other separations. King said ACS has various programs available to everyone affected by deployments and offers various classes as well. There is also help available through the chaplain's office, Child and Youth Services and other post agencies. But it doesn't end there, said King. Parents need to show an interest in their children during any separation. This means not only communicating with children but also talking with their teachers, coaches and others who come in contact with them. King calls it "buying in." "If you don't buy into your Family or whatever you do in life, it's just a waste of time," she said.
Communication, Routine Key to Successful Family Separations
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