Forethought Recommended when Considering Surprise Reunions at Schools

Soldier hugs his daughters

Have you ever seen emotional military parent and child reunions on the news or on YouTube? These typically intense and heartwarming stories often take place at schools or in childcare settings. As moving and touching as these reunions are, cautions have been raised in recent years.

School and childcare administrators and staff, in concert with PTOs and family members, can be proactive in developing policies ahead of a request for staging such a reunion, whether it is filmed on the family's own cameras or with a film crew. Some things to consider to help ensure that a school or childcare environment best meets the needs of military children during parental deployment and reintegration are as follows:

1.  Understand the needs and abilities of the child(ren) of the returning service member.

    • Consider the developmental abilities of the child to process surprising events and the child's typical range of responses to stress and to surprises.
    • Understand how magical thinking can play in young and elementary age children's wishes for a deployed parent. For example, young children may make statements to friends and teachers about a deployed parent returning, whether or not the statements are true. While this may appear to be a child telling a lie, the child is likely trying to wish something into reality. As children develop cognitively and emotionally, they make errors in estimating the power of their thoughts to change circumstances (e.g., If I wish hard enough, it will happen.)
    • In families where children experience loss, violence, behavioral or physical health challenges, or other threatening events, the deployed parent-child relationship may be more complicated than typically expected. Therefore, some children might wish for a deployed parent to stay deployed, appear anxious or distressed at the prospect of the return of that parent, or worry about their stay-behind parent when the deployed parent returns.
    • Research on deployments and children indicates that anxiety is a commonly reported feeling throughout the deployment experience. Surprise reunions may not be a joyful encounter for a child who has experienced chronic stressors associated with deployment.

2.  Identify potential ripple effects of surprise reunions in the school and child care environments.

    • These environments often provide necessary routines and structure to a child's life. Surprise reunions staged in these environments challenge the child's sense of school as a stable and safe place.
    • The child may experience unanticipated (and possibly negative) coping reactions to a big surprise, including running away from the parent, hiding in a space that feels more safe, or clamming up instead of showing intense positive emotions.
    • The return of one child's parent could inadvertently exact a toll on other military children in the school or care environment whose parents are still deployed, had a deployment extended, or may have been injured or killed in the line of duty.

For more information on programs related to children coping with intense emotions please see the Clearinghouse Continuum of Programs or contact our Technical Assistance Team for live help. In particular, the programs Coping Cat and Cool Kids (School Version) may help youth with anxiety disorders or who have reported symptoms of anxiety.


Sources of background information and further reading: