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Resilient & Ready: What Military Families Can Teach Us All About Big Changes

Photo by Janice Richard / iStock
Photo by Janice Richard / iStock
More than 1 million children in the United States grow up in a military family—and for these kids, change and transition are commonplace. Parents can suddenly deploy or the whole family may move to a new military installation. “The children of military families are not different, but their needs can change based on a parent’s call to duty,” explains Kathie Boe, mother of a former marine and KinderCare Education's quality liaison.

Children of military families, Boe notes, can teach quite a lot to any family going through big changes.

1. Let them know they are not alone by giving young children some extra compassion and kindness.

The daily lives of military children can change without much warning. Families move and children start new schools. Parents are deployed or called for training and they’re gone—sometimes quickly and for long periods of time.

Many children do in fact adapt very well to these changes, but simply being welcoming can help a child feel an extra dose of reassurance. Simple kindness goes a long way. You might say something like, It’s so nice to see you. I’m so happy to be spending time together today. Ask how she is and don’t be afraid to talk about her parent who may be working far away.

2. Foster communication with a long-distance parent.

We have a large number of military families in our centers. Our teachers are always looking for ways to help children communicate with a parent who is overseas. They write letters. Some children create journals with a page for each day until deployment ends. They fill the pages with photos, drawings, and letters; and they share it when mom or dad comes back.

If a child in your life has a parent who is far away, you might ask, What special things do you want to do so that you have something to share the next time you talk to Mom or Dad? Help them to plan and do those things.

3. Acknowledge and talk about tough feelings.

Like the children of police officers or firefighters, kids with parents in the military do realize that their parents’ jobs may carry risks. If a child is struggling—acting upset, moody, or aggressive—don’t ignore the behavior. Acknowledge it. After all, a child may be worried or scared, and sharing feeling words will help him to express his own emotions. Be patient and ask them what they are thinking about.

You can also ask about the parent’s job. Asking questions like, What does your mom or dad do? lets the child provide an answer in his own words. Reassure the child by saying things like, It’s good that you’re thinking about Mom or Dad; I bet they’re really good at what they do.

4. Help them build resilience. 

“Children learn to adapt; they learn to figure it out,” says Boe. Many children are in fact quite strong and resilient. Resilience doesn’t mean avoiding showing emotions, however; it means being able to recover and grow stronger through difficult experiences.

We can help children build resilience by accepting and embracing them. A sense of belonging to a community, family, or neighborhood helps a child recover from a difficult experience more quickly, and is often a means of practical support during tough times. Read more about resiliency and embracing family challenges on Military OneSource.

5. Help them feel proud and connected.

Help a kid realize that her parent is doing something important and that she can be very proud of the job that her mom or dad is doing.

Reassure the child that, even if a parent are far away, her mom or dad is thinking about her every day. Suggest a way to express that connection. Ask things like, What do you want to draw or make for Mom today?

6. Offer practical help.

If there is a military family in your neighborhood, sometimes a simple gesture is the best support. “It’s the little things, helping to shovel the driveway, helping to mow the grass,” says Boe.  Offer to help drive kids to school or soccer practice so that their routines can stay the same. These random acts of kindness brighten anyone’s day and reminds the military families in your community that they are not alone.

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