How to Help Your Children Survive the Holidays When Your Loved One Is Deployed

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”? Well, for military families going through the holidays while a loved one is deployed overseas…not so much!

I was in a military family dealing with this experience, and I have tremendous empathy for all of you parents whose spouses will be deployed during the holidays. I remember the mixed emotions surrounding these few months, which should be a festive time of happy anticipation, especially for your children. You can’t help but feel that the responsibility of ensuring the holidays are special rests solely on your shoulders—at a time when you may be feeling lonely and anxious. How do you find the energy to juggle holiday shopping, decorating the house, preparing special meals, and keeping the holiday spirit alive for your little ones?

If you’re feeling afraid or isolated or overwhelmed, you’re not alone. It’s only natural to feel that way when you’re the one holding everything together—but it’s also important to recognize when you need extra emotional support. Remember that it’s okay to ask for help with the laundry or meal preparation. It’s fine to ask someone to stay with your kids while you do some holiday shopping or just need a break. I also know how hard it is to make that request, but you’d be amazed how happy people are to jump in and provide assistance when you tell them what you need.

Here are 10 things you can do that may help you and your children find the joy in a challenging holiday season:

  1. Plan ahead. Key to managing holidays is to prepare far in advance. Hold a family meeting with your children to find out which traditions are particularly important to them, and to plan accordingly. This helps kids feel connected and more comfortable, and it can lessen their stress and sadness.
  2. See through a child’s eyes. An incredible 50 percent of military children are under the age of five! This can be a lonely time for them, too, so plan activities that keep families close. Play board games. Pop some popcorn and watch a movie. Decorate the Christmas tree or light the menorah together. Share memories of holidays past and the places you’ve lived. Go sledding. Reading books is a great way to connect emotionally with children; I highly recommend Judith Viorst’s brilliant Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day.
  3. Join forces. Spend time with other military families who are also separated during the holidays. Camaraderie can be comforting and help combat feelings of loneliness.
  4. Keep the schedule. In times of stress, children do better with schedules and routines. Predictability helps lower anxiety and makes them feel at ease.
  5. Send a care package. Include the kids in creating a special holiday package for your loved one. Assemble a customized photo album of the special events of the past few months—birthdays, outings, the school talent show. Shop together so that the kids can pick items to include, such as socks, toiletries, paperback books. Bake some favorite homemade treats and craft homemade cards. Getting the kids involved will help them feel connected to the absent parent.
  6. Link to the past. Continue meaningful traditions and rituals that have been important to your family. Provide children with a sense of continuity and connectedness. And of course it’s fine to create new traditions and combine them with your old ones as you navigate this unfamiliar experience.
  7. Leave home to go home. Consider visiting family or friends during the holidays. Nowhere does it say that you have to celebrate the same way every year. Take a road trip! Even a short getaway can get kids in the holiday spirit—and it’s an excellent way to take your mind off things.
  8. Stay busy. Keeping yourself occupied helps ease the sadness of the separation. Check out fun, child-friendly activities in your community or on your military base. Doing crafts, wrapping presents, and participating in holiday activities can help kids enjoy the festivities of the season.
  9. Find new ways to celebrate together. If your loved one won’t be home for the holiday, set up a time for the kids to connect with their parent through Skype or FaceTime. Include your loved one when opening presents or stockings—that way, the parent who’s deployed can be a real part of the holiday in real time. Or host a new holiday celebration when your loved one returns. There’s no law against celebrating a winter holiday in spring!
  10. Do unto others… Consider volunteering as a family. If you’re feeling depressed or under stress, helping others can actually help get out of your own head. It can also put into perspective the good things you have in your life.

For many military families, holidays during a deployment are uncharted waters. I hope you will find comfort—and, yes, joy—in familiar rituals, in creating new traditions, and in being with each other.

Offering your Support

Even if you’re not part of a military family yourself, there are many ways for you to provide assistance to those who are:

  • Operation We Are Here ( connects you to a variety of ways that you can “adopt” or provide support to a military family.
  • Christmas Décor is taking nominations of military families who deserve to have their homes decorated for the holidays! Nominations are due November 11—or save the link for next year.
  • Operation Homefront ( supports military families with financial assistance, back-to-school supplies for kids, holiday meals, and more.
  • Trees for Troops ( provides farm-grown Christmas trees to members of the military serving overseas, and to their families, with deliveries made by FedEx.
  • The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation supplies new toys to children in the community who might otherwise go without gifts during the holidays.