Deployment Cycle of Emotions: You’re Not Alone

By: MJ Boice, Staff Writer

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Experts have studied the cycle of emotions military families encounter during deployment and have found certain emotional characteristics can be identified through different phases throughout each deployment.Every military family will have a different set of challenges when experiencing deployments. Likewise, each member of a military family will have different reactions based on their unique placement in the family.

No matter what phase of the deployment cycle you are in, you are not alone.

Phase 1: Anticipation

This phase will typically begin almost as soon as your service member receives their deployment orders.

Couples – You might feel an increase in tension at home, and it’s not uncommon to feel anger or resentment towards your service member when they have to work longer hours. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself bickering with your partner, as many couples do this as a way of distancing themselves from one another to prepare for deployment separations. Speaking openly about fears and frustrations can help keep feelings from getting hurt in the end.

Children – If you have children, it’s important to keep them in the loop about an upcoming deployment. Depending on their age, make sure they understand both parents love them very much and encourage them to talk about their own fears and frustrations.

Phase 2: Detachment and Withdrawal

In the final days leading up to your service member’s deployment, your family may start to close down emotionally, or avoid emotions altogether.

Couples – Even though you and your service member might be racing the clock to get everything in order before their departure, try not to use your laundry list of tasks to avoid one another. Don’t be surprised if you want them to just “leave already.” It’s normal to want to rip the Band-Aid off and just get on with it, as the anticipation often can lead to anxiety.

Children – Depending on your child’s age, they may be confused or angry around this period of time. Some military kids become upset with the parent who is deploying, and others might feel as though they did something to make their deploying parent want to leave. Give children the opportunity to be part of the process, especially on the day of the departure. It might be tempting to leave them with a baby-sitter to avoid the hassle or spare their feelings, however, try to include them as much as possible through each step of the deployment.

Phase 3: Elevated Emotion

One to six weeks into the deployment, you and your family might feel as though your worlds have been turned upside-down. Experts refer to this as emotional disorganization. This is largely due to the disruption in your family’s every-day routine, which can leave you and your children feeling pretty overwhelmed. You may find yourself shouldering more responsibilities while flying solo, so be cautious of all the plates you’re spinning. Always remember that it’s ok to say no to extra commitments over the next few months. It’s very possible you’ll feel disorganized or depressed in the beginning, and you don’t want to burn out so early on in the deployment.

Couples – Your service member will likely be very busy settling into their own deployment mind-set. Usually their focus is on their mission, instead of their marriage. Many spouses have reported feeling so overwhelmed by everything on their plate they begin to believe that their service member has it easy on deployment. It may feel as though the family has taken a ‘back-burner’ to their service member’s priorities, but remember: just because they’re putting the mission first doesn’t mean they’re putting your family last.

Children – Your children may begin showing signs they’re upset in the phase. It’s important to remember that their emotions won’t show the same way an adults would. Kids often show signs they are struggling in ways that may make you feel as though you’re trying to piece together a puzzle. It’s not uncommon for behavior to regress. A young child who’s been potty-trained for quite a while might begin to have accidents. You may notice your school-aged children’s grades begin to slip. Make sure they know that the rules haven’t changed, but be there for them and seek professional help if you feel like their behavior is out of your scope.

Phase 4: New Routines

As you gain your footing and establish your own battle-rhythm, you’ll find your family will begin settling into your new normal. You may feel a greater sense of independence and confidence that you wouldn’t have even dreamed of in the months before. Many spouses have referred to this stage of the deployment as the “Super Hero/Wonder Woman” phase.

Couples – As you and your service member begin to settle into your new routines more easily, you may find that communication between the two of you has improved. Many couples are able to breathe a sigh of relief that the deployment is officially underway and begin making plans upon their return to the home front. While you both may feel that the family is functioning well at this point, make sure this newfound stability trickles down to the rest of your family as well.

Children – Your children may experience this phase in a few different ways. They may adapt well and settle into you’re the new routine nicely, or they might begin acting out or getting crankier each day. Some children need more time than others to adjust to having their parent gone for long periods of time. Bottom line: this phase brings both positive and negative challenges on the home front. It’s important for parents to acknowledge the negative and help them to embrace the positive.

Phase 5: The Home Stretch

Homecoming is often referred to as the “best part of deployment” and tends to bring about feelings of relief and excitement. As your family begins the planning process to welcome your deployed loved one home, it’s important to recognize that your idea of the perfect homecoming may not mesh with what your service member has in mind. Make sure you ask them what their expectations are before you begin the planning process. A host of mixed emotions may arise, from happiness to anxiety, so make sure to keep the lines of communication open on this subject with all members of the family.

Couples – At this point, you’re probably full of joy at the thought of being with your service member again. They probably share in that sense of relief as well, though they may also be feeling a bit of anxiety if they begin wondering if their family even needs them anymore. It’s absolutely normal for them to be apprehensive about what life will look like when they get back, so try to reassure them through this. Remind them that, while the world did keep spinning in their absence, you’ll be happy once they’re back in your universe.

Children – Your younger children are going to take emotional cues from you regarding your service member’s return. Older kids might be relieved that their mom or dad will soon be home, but they might also feel anxious and wonder if they will be the same person they were when they left. Teens might be afraid that they didn’t meet their deployed parent’s expectations while they were away. Whatever their individual worries are, make sure to discuss this with your service member so they have a heads up before they get home.

Phase 6: Homecoming

It’s important for everyone to remember that schedules, especially in the military, can change at the drop of a hat. Your family may have planned to meet your service member on base or at the airport at noon on a Saturday, only to find that the schedule changed and now they won’t be in until midnight that evening. Make sure you inform extended family that this scenario may be possible and to make travel plans accordingly.

Couples – Don’t be surprised if you or your service member feel awkward at first. It’s completely normal to be nervous around one another, especially since you haven’t communicated in-person in a while. Many spouses have felt so out of place that they equate the homecoming experience to having their first kiss. It might take a while to get back into the romantic groove of things after being apart for so long.

The first few days after their return, you and your service member may go through a honeymoon period. Everything feels new to both of you, including your relationship. Once your service member begins navigating their way into the family’s routine again, they may feel like strangers in their own house. Since you were the one calling the shots during the deployment it might be a bit difficult to give up those reigns, even if it’s just to share the burden of those responsibilities. Bottom line: you and your service member will need to learn how to make decisions as a couple again. At first you might feel as though you’ve lost that independence you acquired while they were gone, but try to remember that you two are a team and you both can pick up where the other leaves off.

Children – Homecoming is just as exciting for your children as it is for you. It can be equally as confusing for them as well. Your kids will need to re-establish their relationship with the returning parent, which can take a little while. They are used to always relying on you to answer their questions, give them permission and meet their needs. It’s important to remind the returning parent about this and ask that they not take it personally. This is just the habit they’ve gotten into during the deployment and it can take some time to remind them that they have two parents who can help with homework now instead of just one!

Phase 7: Reintegration

By now you’ve probably realized that the deployment doesn’t end the day they come home. Your service member still needs to reintegrate back into the family, and this can be an adjustment for everyone. Another “new normal” has to be established, which may look very different after each deployment.

Couples – As a couple, you’ll begin to slowly ease into a comfortable routine together over the next few months. There will be some trial and error, as each family member has inevitably changed since the day your service member left for deployment. Roles and responsibilities have changed, and it’s time to renegotiate them. Some spouses have no trouble giving the financial responsibilities right back to their service members upon their return, while others have become interested in managing the family finances. Either way, discussing your roles in areas like this will help head off any miscommunication. If your service member appears to be having an unusually difficult time adjusting, or their behavior is unsettling in any way, it’s important you ask that they seek help. Offer to go with them and let them know you’re there for them every step of the way.

Children – Just as you and your service member are working to re-adjust after deployment, your children are as well. Of course they’re over the moon that mommy or daddy is home, however they may begin to push some boundaries as they adjust to the new family dynamics. Younger children may have a hard time accepting the service member’s return because they might be worried they’ll leave again soon. They may also begin acting out since there are now to parents to dole out needed discipline instead of one. It’s also not uncommon for teens to begin rebelling a bit; as they may feel resentment regarding the service member’s prolonged absence.

The deployment cycle of emotions will look different for everyone. You may stay in one phase longer than another, or your family may skip a phase altogether. No matter where you are in the deployment cycle, NMFA is here to help.

How does your family deal with the cycle of emotions during deployment?