How do I discipline my child while I’m deployed?

Deployments can be a particularly stressful time for military families. If you have kids, it can be especially hard to figure out how to stay connected with them while you’re away. And a big part of parenting is setting boundaries, managing expectations, and using discipline to guide your kids down the right path, which is tough to do from afar. Try these tips to get your family ready and help you balance your duties during deployment with your parenting duties back home.

Before you go

  • Check your mindset. Those qualities that make you a high-performing Warfighter might not be the same ones that make you a good parent. It’s hard to separate the two, but effective discipline requires you to put on your “parenting hat” and temporarily set aside your “Military Service Member hat.” Before you go, practice taking a conscious break between your workdays and going home. That might mean you sit in your car for 10 minutes, go for a quick walk, or run an errand before engaging with your family. As you get in the habit of mentally separating your roles at home and work, it will be easier to shift your focus when you need to, even down the line when you’re deployed and on duty 24/7.

  • Create a discipline plan with your partner or child’s caregiver. Set up a tag team that includes parents, babysitters, relatives, or other main caregivers for your children. It also can be hard for your child’s other parent (or caregivers) to feel like they’re always the “bad guy” when discipline is needed, so be sure and use a positive team approach to design a plan that works for everyone.

A positive approach centers on teaching kids to manage their feelings and behaviors. Talk about how—as a team—you’ll focus on giving the kids positive attention and praise, setting rules, providing guidance, and deciding what will happen when they break the rules or push limits. Consider the age of your child when choosing appropriate consequences too. This preparation can help decrease parenting stress during and after a deployment.

During deployment

  • Communicate with your children often. Use technology, letters, care packages, and whatever else is available. This is particularly helpful for younger kids who might have a harder time paying attention to one mode vs. another. When you connect, ask about their routines and how they’re doing. Be consistent with the rules and structure you discussed in the family meeting, and focus on telling your children what they’re doing well. Recognize that kids are always learning, and they will continually push limits. It’s your job to help them do so safely.

  • Check in with your partner or child’s caregiver. Ask how your child is coping with things. Discuss if everything in the plan is working as expected and use problem-solving skills if behavior problems pop up while you’re away. It’s also helpful to encourage your partner on the home front to participate in her or his own stress-relieving outlets to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Remember to validate any challenges she or he might face as well.

  • Watch your language. Harsh verbal discipline can cause a child’s mental health and self-esteem to suffer. Instead, empathize through tough times and validate their experiences, especially with you away. Use positive language (such as “we” and “together”) that implies you’re a team and a family unit. If you have to address an issue, remember to distinguish between the behavior you don’t like and making statements about your child’s character.

For example, instead of saying, “You’ve been bad lately. It’s mean for you to hit your brother and it needs to stop now!” try saying, “I heard you’ve been eating well and cleaning up your toys lately. I’m very proud of you! But hitting hurts. How can we work on you being kinder to your brother?”

  • Call in reinforcements. Parenting while deployed will be hard, but remember you’re not alone. Ask other family members, friends, school staff, coaches, or other important people in your child’s life to help out if they continue to struggle. Sometimes children need a gentle reminder they have many people who love and care about them and want them to succeed.

When you get home

  • Take it slow. When it comes to setting boundaries and creating consequences, it can be a huge adjustment for your kids to suddenly have you back home and taking on a larger role in parenting. It will be a big change for you too. While you were gone, you might have gotten used to a different communication style than what your kids might expect or respond to. And even though you and your family might have set up a plan before you left, there’s a good chance some things fell by the wayside. That’s okay. Remember there are many strategies you and your partner can use to get back into a routine that works for everyone.

You might be wary of being an authority figure while deployed because it’s not easy to address tough issues when you only get a little time during the day (or week) to speak with your family. But you can help the process go more smoothly by focusing on using a positive approach and preparing ahead of time. Keep in mind you also can help shape your children’s behavior by maintaining good connections with them while you’re apart.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (1998). Guidance for effective discipline. Pediatrics, 101(4), 723–728. doi:10.1542/peds.101.4.723

Cuskelly, M., Morris, M., Gilmore, L., & Besley, T. (2015). Parents' reported use and views of strategies for managing the behaviour of their preschool child. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 40(2), 99–106. doi:10.1177/183693911504000212

Knopf, A. (2015). Negative parenting: A guide for parents. The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, 31(S2), 1–2. doi:10.1002/cbl.30021

Louie, A. D., & Cromer, L. D. (2014). Parent–child attachment during the deployment cycle: Impact on reintegration parenting stress. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(6), 496–503. doi:10.1037/a0036603

Rosenberg, M. B. (2017). Raising children compassionately. Journal of Holistic Healthcare, 14(1), 4–7.