Thrive When Your Child Leaves for Boot Camp

One of the hardest things to experience as a Mom (and you Dads too) is to have your child leave the house when they are young adults.  I’ve experienced it myself twice so far when my oldest son left for Navy boot camp and my middle son left for Air Force basic training. I’ve written about the difficulty of saying goodbye to them here, here and here (I’m totally not obsessed, I promise lol) but I think I have some tips for how to not just survive when your child leaves for boot camp but to thrive. You owe it to yourself and your child (I use this term loosely as I know they are now adults)!

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1. Prepare yourself for their departure.

The months and weeks leading up to their departure have a tendency to loom over everyone’s heads. Don’t be surprised if your child starts pushing away during this time, and either gets crabbier with you or doesn’t want to be around as much. I think this is how some prepare themselves mentally to say goodbye.  We also enjoyed, with both boys, having a night before barbecue with all their friends and had a ceremonial head shaving as a fun way to say goodbye. Lots of laughter and tears were shared!

2. Be Informed of the Process.

Make sure you and your child are informed of how the first days of their departure will go. Some examples are what time they will report to either their recruiter or to their specific MEPs (Military Entrance Processing)? How long will they be there before they leave for boot camp? When will you hear from them when they arrive? Each branch in different and I found the more prepared I was, the easier it went.

3. Feel all the feels.

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I’m also a military spouse, so I thought I was a pro at saying goodbye for deployments and long periods of separation. It was a completely different set of feels watching my babies leave. With my oldest, my husband was also deployed so there were extra emotions involved. I am the type that needs to give myself a day of feeling sad and crying as much as I need, be totally useless and work through it before getting myself together the next day and moving on with life. I did this with my husband’s deployments and also when my oldest left.

When my middle son left, I also had the first day of school to contend with and a brand new class of fourth graders. I didn’t get a chance to have my feel sorry for myself day, and it was definitely a different experience. I think the emotions lasted much longer because I had to bottle them up for days and days. The spontaneous sting of tears loomed for weeks instead of days and proved to me how important it is to get all the emotion out.  My point is do whatever you need to do in order to deal with the emotions you’re experiencing.

4. Plan for a couple difficult phone calls.

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Once your child arrives at boot camp, they are told to call home to inform a parent, or significant other they have arrived safely. Expect to hear your child sounding very intense and/or nervous. They may also call one other time to give you their address. This is dependent on the branches. I’m only informed with the Navy and the Air Force, but the Navy gathers all your child’s belongings, including their cell phone, and mails them back to you with a card that includes their address. The Air Force has them keep their things with them and they call a few days after their arrival with an address. Don’t get upset if you hear this nervousness and think that someone is being mean to your baby. They are grown adults now and this is how the military works. Trust me, I’ve watched it transform two of my children from barely an adult, to an upstanding and mature individual in just weeks.

5. Write, write, write!

You will go weeks without hearing from your child again. During this time it is super important you write to them as much as you can. This is their only access to the outside world and it is very helpful for them to keep up their spirit. Make sure your letters are light as well. I’m not saying you can’t tell them you miss them, but don’t go on and on about how miserable you are, if that’s the case. They are under some serious stress and they don’t need to add worrying about family on top of that. Tell them what’s going on around home, even if it seems silly and be encouraging. They prize these letters during this time so make sure to keep them coming.  Plus I have found it makes me feel less lonesome for them by talking to them in the letters.

6. Keep that phone by your side.

I know this may sound ridiculous, but you can never count on for sure when you will hear from them. The worst feeling would be to miss that call after waiting weeks. I learned as a military spouse, that during deployment, my phone was my best friend because it was my only connection to my husband. It proved the same when my boys were at boot camp as well. Most phone calls were during the day when I was at work, so I was very thankful that I didn’t miss any of them. It is also super disappointing for them to miss getting to talk to someone as it could be weeks before they get that chance again. Also don’t be surprised if the phone call gets cut short at any time. Sometimes it’s part of the process.

7. Be an active learner.

There are many great resources out there for parents to learn about what your child is experiencing. I think it helps knowing what they are going through. There are YouTube videos, direct websites and Facebook groups. Some of the Facebook groups are mostly geared toward parents but I will share one warning about that. 

Maybe I have a hardened attitude since we were prior military, but my children leaving for their adult life isn’t a sad experience in our house. I celebrate they are moving into a new and exciting stage of their lives. The sad part I’m no longer involved as a parent as intimately as before, so there is that grief of saying goodbye to their childhood. But some of the parents in a group I was a part of went on and on about how they couldn’t eat, sleep or even function because their child left. In my opinion, we don’t raise our children to stay home and make us feel important. We raise them to be independent enough to go and do whatever it is that fulfills their dreams. I found some of those individuals to be very depressing so I would caution you to find some positive connections and stay away from the drama.

8. Don’t forget you have a life.

To backpack off that prior tip, remember that you aren’t just a mom. If you have given up interests, take back some of that and pursue what made you happy before you had kids. Start an exercise program, or resume a fun hobby or learn something new. Rekindle some of those friendships that maybe took a backseat or find a new tribe experiencing the same things as you. I have found that nothing makes my grown sons more proud than to tell them about something I’ve accomplished.

9. Plan for graduation.

Once you receive their graduation date, start planning. I found it helped me feel more excitement and less sadness by planning our family trip, finding places to stay and some fun things to do. Don’t be surprised if your boot camp graduate doesn’t want to do very much when they have free time however. They have spent weeks and weeks in a very structured and stressful environment. Many of them (at least my boys) wanted to spend much of their time just relaxing in our hotel room. We saw a few sites, but mostly I let them take the lead and tell me what they wanted to do most which wasn’t very much!

10. Don’t be that mom.

You hear horror stories of mothers calling commanding officers or contacting other individuals of higher rank than your child. I really thought it was an urban legend and a joke until I had a friend tell me a story about her mom. Her mom actually contacted her commanding officer and that would be devastating for anyone, in my opinion. Your child is now an adult, and if they didn’t practice taking care of their problems before leaving home, they must handle them now.  Support them all you want, but the time of you taking care of a situation has now passed.

The feelings of pride you will feel watching your now adult child as they go through graduation will be overwhelming. It is an amazing experience and to see how much they have grown and matured is unbelievable. You will quickly learn that this is just the beginning of a challenging but amazingly rewarding calling. Now they move on to A school, tech school, a training track or whatever their branch refers to the learning process of their new job. It will be a whole new set of trials. It isn’t easy, but that’s why such a small percentage actually take the vow to wear the uniform of this country. Welcome to the military family!