Supporting Young Children in Military Families

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 child care programs. Children with a single parent or two military parents may be sent to 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.

How does the family experience deployment?

Families go through several stages when a military parent is deployed:

  • Pre-deployment begins when the soldier has received orders and the family prepares for the separation. Parents must deal with their own feelings along with the many necessary arrangements. These stresses can leave them less available to reassure their child.
  • During active deployment, the family adjusts to the soldier being away on assignment. The remaining parent or caretaker must support the child while coping with his or her own adjustment and possible concerns for the military parent’s safety. Even a young child realizes that her life has changed, and she may cling to the parent or express anger or grief.
  • Homecoming 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 family may be even stronger when reunited, but it is never quite the same.

How can teachers support children during each stage of a parent’s deployment?

Teachers and child care 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. Teachers can…

  • Ask parents to let them know as soon as possible of an upcoming deployment. This awareness can help the teacher understand unusual behaviors in the child, such as anger, sadness, or clinginess.
  • Encourage the parent to provide the child with pictures and videos of the parent and child together. Pictures can provide opportunities for the child to talk about concerns or changes.
  • Discuss with the parent if and how he or she 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…

  • Affirm the child’s feelings if he seems sad or angry that mom or dad is gone.
  • Expect some regression but continue to set clear limits.
  • Reassure him that his parent misses him, too.
  • Remind him that his parent intends to email or call and to come home as soon as possible.
  • Help him make drawings or notes to send or to share with his parent when they are together again.
  • Let him share email, letters, care packages, or video teleconferences from the parent with classmates, if he would like to do so.

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 through the use of 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 the 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.

Homecoming 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 child care program can be a consistent and safe place for the child. Teachers can help the child express feelings, such as being happy and feeling 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 child care 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 he begins to attend, if possible, and talk about classroom routines.
  • Invite parents to stay in the room for extended periods the first week, gradually reducing the time each day.
  • Show the child where to find his cubby or desk, the coat hooks, soap, paper towels, and facial tissues.
  • Let the child know that you understand that he misses his parents. Assure him that he is safe with you.
  • Introduce the child to the group and mention something interesting about her that will engage others: “Laurie has a dog named Chip.”
  • Assign a caring “partner” to help a new child find her way around.

What are signs that a child may need counseling or play therapy?

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
  • Sadness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of appetite
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Loss of interest in play and other activities