Children in military families are like all children in their need for love, safety, and reasonably consistent routines. However, children in military families may go through more frequent transitions than other children. As military parents are reassigned or relocated, they may be separated from their spouses or children, or the families may need to move to new communities and new preschools or childcare programs. Children with a single parent or two military parents may live with extended family or friends during times of military deployment. These children may feel insecure and worried about their parents’ safety. They may require extra support from a teacher or care provider during these transitions. This Q&A addresses common questions concerning military families with young children.
How does the family experience deployment?
Families go through several stages when a military parent is deployed:
- Predeployment begins when the soldier has received orders and the family prepares for the separation. Parents must deal with their feelings along with the many necessary arrangements. This may result in the need for professionals to provide more support to the child and family as they navigate their feelings.
- During active deployment, the family adjusts to the soldier being away on assignment. The home-based caregiver must support the child while coping with their own adjustment and possible concerns for the military parent’s safety. Even a young child realizes that their life has changed, and they may cling to the parent or express anger or grief.
- Reunion includes the arrival home and the adjustment period that follows. Rules and routines may change again for the child. Some call the deployment experience a spiral rather than a cycle, because children and adults continue to grow and change while apart.
- The last stage in the deployment cycle is reintegration, when families reestablish parenting practices and home routines. During this stage, the family may renegotiate each adult’s roles and responsibilities surrounding caregiving, finances, and household.
How can teachers support children during each stage of a parent’s deployment?
Teachers and childcare providers can provide a warm and welcoming place and a consistent routine for all children. This support will help reassure a child when there is stress and change at home. Prior to deployment, teachers can
- Ask parents to let them know of a potential upcoming deployment, when possible. This awareness can help the teacher understand unusual behaviors in the child, such as anger, sadness, or clinginess. Parents may need help in finding the words to connect with their child’s teacher.
- Encourage parents to provide the child with pictures and videos of the deployed parent and child together. Pictures can provide opportunities for the child to talk about concerns or changes.
- Discuss with the soon-to-be deployed parent whether and how they will be able to communicate with the child. Knowing this information, teachers can remind the child how the two of them will stay in touch.
During deployment, teachers should be alert to signs of stress in the child. It is important not to avoid talking about the deployed parent. In addition to being warm and encouraging, teachers can
- Affirm the child’s feelings if they seem sad or angry that their parent is gone. Help them share their feelings and use words to name them.
- Expect some regression but continue to set clear limits.
- Reassure them that their parent misses them, too. Let children know that we all have feelings.
- Remind them that their parent intends to email or call and to come home as soon as possible.
- Help them make drawings or notes to send or to share with their parent when they reunite
- Let them share email, letters, care packages, or video teleconferences from the parent with classmates, if they choose.
Children may show a need to express their feelings through play. If they aren’t comfortable talking about feelings directly, they may be able to show emotions using a puppet. Children in military families may want to play war or use toy weapons in their play. This type of play can be a way for a child to work through concerns about their deployed parent, but it can also be difficult for teachers who are uncomfortable allowing war play. If teachers choose not to permit this kind of play, they need to redirect the children without criticism or disapproval of the parents’ roles or the child’s feelings.
Reunion is another time of change. It’s usually a happy time, but the transition can cause stress. The military parent may be finding an abrupt transition difficult. In addition, the deployed parent may find that both the child and family routines have changed. The child may hesitate to become close again to the parent who left. This is another time that the classroom or childcare program can be a consistent and safe place for the child with routines the child is familiar with. Teachers can help the child express complex emotions, such as feeling happy but being a bit shy at the same time. Teachers can also help by planning child-parent activities that include the returning parent.
How can teachers help the child in a military family adjust to a new childcare program or classroom?
Teachers can help children in military families who are entering a new program or classroom in a number of ways. Teachers can
- Meet with the parents and child before they begin to attend, if possible, and talk about classroom routines and what the first few days will be like.
- Invite parents to stay in the room for extended periods the first week, gradually reducing the time each day. This gradual separation can ease those first-day blues!
- Show the child where to find their cubby or seat, coat and backpack hook, handwashing station, tissues, and other common supplies.
- Let the child know that they understand that the child misses his parents while assuring them of safety in their new program. A little separation anxiety is normal.
- Introduce the child to the group and mention something interesting about them that will engage others. They could bring something from home to share in a “show and tell” format.
- Assign a caring “partner” to help the new child find their way around.
What are signs that a child may need counseling or play therapy?
Children may have big feelings in the classroom. However, we need to be on the lookout for certain extended behaviors in children. Teachers can talk to a child’s parent or guardian about counseling for the child who exhibits the following behaviors for a long period:
- Aggressive behavior
- Lack of appetite
- Withdrawal from others
- Loss of interest in play and other activities
Young children’s mental health is important and closely related to their social and emotional development. Parents can ask their pediatrician to recommend a professional to support their child’s mental health. Additional resources on young children’s mental health can be found in our resource list.
DiPietro-Wells, R., Krippel, M. D., Ostrosky, M. M., & Santos, R. M. (2020). Debunking myths to promote collaboration with military families. Young Exceptional Children, 23(4), 175–186. https://doi.org/10.1177/1096250619856015
- Tip Sheets
- Resource List: Young Children’s Mental Health