More than 1 million young 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 have a permanent change of station, and 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,” explained KinderCare Education’s Vice President of Quality and Accreditation Kathie Boe, mother of a former U.S. Marine.
April is Month of the Military Child. Established in 1986 by the Defense Department, the month recognizes approximately 1.9 million U.S. military children ranging in age from infancy to 18 years.
“It’s a time to celebrate our nation’s military children and recognize the sacrifice they make each and every day,” Boe said.
As young children go through changes to their family life, here’s how to give them the support they’re likely to need:
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 Active Duty Training and they’re gone—sometimes quickly and for long periods of time.
Many children adapt 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.
KinderCare Education serves a large number of military families. Teachers are always looking for ways to help children communicate with a parent who is overseas like writing letters or even using Skype. Some children create journals with a page for each day until deployment ends. They fill the pages with photos, drawings, and letters and share it when mom or dad comes home.
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 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 he is re thinking about.
You can also ask about the parent’s job. Asking questions like, “What does your mom or dad do?” allows the child to 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,” said Boe.
Many children are quite resilient. Resilience doesn’t mean avoiding showing emotions—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 child realize that her parent is doing something important and that she should be proud of the job that her mom or dad is doing.
Reassure the child that, even if a parent is far away, her mom or dad is thinking about her every day. Suggest a way to express that connection. Build excitement by taking photos of the child doing fun activities throughout the week and work with the at-home parent to find a way to send the photos to the deployed parent; create a fun calendar to count down the days until their parent returns; or start a growth chart that they can show their mom or dad when they return. The more you include the child in the activities, the more they will feel like they’re connected to their family.
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,” said 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.
Contact Blue Star Mothers for more information on supporting military families in your community.