The childhood experience of boys and girls from military families is undeniably unique. The children of our military will experience the melting pot that is American culture as they travel around the country, make friends they otherwise would never have met, taste foods from different parts of the country and the globe and have a more mature understanding of and appreciation for the roles that service and sacrifice play in the liberties we enjoy daily.
But some of the experiences that are unique to a military child will be more challenging. Nearly 44 percent of our active duty service members have children, which, according to Early Childhood Education Journal, means that there are 1.1 million children who are experiencing a move every two to four years. With so many children undergoing regular relocation, military families must find ways to prepare and support their children as they make this difficult transition. Here are five ways to support your military children through a move or other military transition.
Every child will handle the news of a move differently. Some will get sad, some will get angry, some will appear fine and only later when the reality hits will they show signs of distress. Others will seem totally unfazed and take the entire thing in stride. Regardless, the single most important way to help your child cope with a move is to establish open lines of communication.
Try not to assume that you know exactly how your child is feeling; no matter how many moves you have been through yourself, each move is different and each child is different. If your child seems upset, ask him why. For each fear or concern that he names, work with him to develop a game plan for addressing that concern. For instance, if your older child is sad about leaving her friends, help her start working on a group chat app (such as GroupMe), an email list or a pen pal system to help her stay in touch. If he's afraid of starting at a new school, do some research and find pictures of the school, a school schedule, some of the school's exciting events and make plans to try to meet the teacher and other kids who attend the school before school starts.
Most importantly, make sure that your child knows you're available to listen whenever she needs you to. Whether that means offering advice or simply lending a shoulder to cry on, your support is the most valuable thing you can give your child during a move.
Before your child is ready to start over in a new state, city and school, he'll need closure. Closure enables all human beings at all stages of life to move forward as one door closes and another opens, and your children are no different. For very young children, this may look like driving around to all of her favorite places and waving goodbye. "Goodbye, park! Goodbye, library!" You'll feel ridiculous, but the simple act of "saying bye" followed by looking at pictures of all the new places she will get to see when you move will help her as she makes the transition.
For older children, closure may look like a going away party or a last dinner out with friends. Allowing your older child to participate in the move is another way to help her reach closure. Going with you to sign forms withdrawing them from their school, assigning them specific tasks to help with packing and helping them to make a list of things they want to do before they leave -- then taking them to do those things -- are more ideas for helping older children achieve closure before a move.
All children thrive in a structured environment. Having routines is necessary for children to feel stable and secure, and the chaos of moving can often disrupt these routines. However, maintaining your normal day-to-day routines as much as possible will be a significant help to your children, both during the move and once you arrive at your destination. Keeping up with your routines will help your child to feel like things are normal, and that sense of normalcy will go a long way toward helping him adjust to his new home.
One of the benefits of moving with the military is that most military bases offer the same programs and activities. So if you go to storytime at the library at your current duty station, find out when the storytime is at the library at your new duty station and make plans to be there. If you normally take your high schooler out for coffee on Thursdays, get him excited about searching for a coffee shop in your new town and continue your tradition. If you picnic at the dog park every Tuesday, make sure you do it at your new posting as well. A large part of the sadness and anger children experience during a move stems from the fear that everything will change. Continuing to do the same activities that your child enjoys, no matter where you live, will help to reassure her that day-to-day life will largely remain the same, even if her home and her neighborhood are different.
The final (and possibly the most difficult) way to help your child cope with a move is to cope with the move yourself.
From the minute they opened their eyes, your children have been watching you and -- try not to cringe -- imitating you. What this means for your move is this: If you have a history of allowing your stress to impact your attitude during a move, your child will likely do the same. If moving sends you into a messy-haired, coffee (or wine) guzzling mom rage, your child will be filled with dread at the news of a move because he knows that it will affect you. And because it affects you, it affects your children. Moving is hard on every member of the family, and no one expects you to pretend like it isn't. But remember to take care of yourself first. Only once you have taken care of yourself and found ways to cope with the move yourself will you be able to take care of your children and support them in their coping. If you are able to approach the move as an adventure and cheerfully look ahead to the new and exciting things you will experience as you change duty stations, your children will find it easier to do the same.
Military families regularly find themselves in unique situations that many of their civilian friends will never encounter. With these unique situations come a unique set of needs, including the effects of frequent moves on the children of military families. Establishing open communication with your child, helping your child achieve closure as you prepare to move, maintaining day-to-day routines and activities and approaching the move with a positive attitude are just a few ways to make the inevitable relocations easier on yourself and your family. And remember... if mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. Amiright?