When my husband deployed to Afghanistan a couple of years ago, we had a rough idea of how long he would be gone. I made a chain of 220 paper rings. At the end of each day, my four boys and I broke one of the paper rings off. This helped my younger children visualize the total time he would be away. It also helped them see the progression of time toward our reunion. It was a cherished ritual.

Over the weekend, my husband was called up to respond to a mission for an undefined amount of time. What I do know: he was activated as a member of the Air Force Reserves for six months. That is the maximum amount of time that can be requested. Strategically, in a last-minute mission such as this, it makes sense to ask for the maximum amount of time. He was sent to help relieve the doctors in New York City as they approach the apex of their COVID19 wave this week. We don’t know how long he will be needed there, or if he will be sent to help another city after. Even though six months was requested, he could reasonably be gone for only a few weeks.

Unknowns such as this can be hard for children. They like to have information so they can feel safe. Also, it’s important to be honest with children. Children like their stories to be complete. In the absence of information, they may fill in the details with their imagination. My honest answer about how long their father will be gone, “two weeks to six months,” is not very helpful to them. Especially, when coupled with news that is already potentially scary (going directly to the COVID19 front lines). Therefore, I have modified the paper chain ring activity that we have used in the past.

Rather than dismantle rings on a paper chain, this time, we are creating a paper chain of rings together. We add one ring for each day that my husband is gone. I am sharing this activity so that families in similar situations can benefit from it.

Paper Chain Mood Rings


  • Construction paper

  • Scissors

  • Markers

  • Tape

Step One

Cut a variety of colored construction paper into strips.

Step Two

Choose a color that feels right. Write something, such as a feeling or a phrase, that captures the essence of the day. Note: It doesn’t need to be negative. It is OK for children to experience joy and happiness during this time, even if the parent is not feeling the same way.

Step Three

Tape the strip of paper into a ring.


Step Four

Repeat, daily. Connect the rings.

Note: More than one child? No problem. Be creative in how to allow for all multiple children to participate.

  • Take turns.
  • There can be more than one ring to represent each day.
  • Each child can write on the same ring.
  • Choose a predominant mood for that day.


  • Writing down our thoughts and feelings is beneficial. Writing feelings down helps with containment and emotional regulation.
  • Using colors to represent feelings can give a visual glimpse of overall feeling patterns.
  • Invites discussion about feelings.
    • Or not. Not talking about feelings is OK too. Simply “witnessing” the process of choosing a color and maybe naming it is enough.
  • Ritual offers consistency and reliability which promote a sense of trust and safety.
  • Visualizing and concretizing the “march of time” may help give a sense of control, which can be especially beneficial when dealing with unknown variables such as “how much time will s/he be away?”

(My personal reflections related to being the spouse of a physician deployed to the front lines at this time: The Good: Opportunities to Connect.)


These blog posts may also be helpful:


  • If you invite the children and families you are working with to do this activity together, it can serve as a discussion point. Invite the child/family to take a look at the rings they added between sessions and discuss them with you.
  • Blog post: Dear Helpers


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