Sacrifices Made by Military Children: Ways to Combat the Challenges

It's our pleasure to introduce you to one of our ambassador authors, Kelsey! 


Kelsey Testa, M.S. CPT, is an Exercise Physiologist, Health and Wellness Expert, and Blogger.  She is also currently a graduate student pursuing her Doctorate in the Exercise Science field.  As a mama bear to two and a spouse to a military member, she understands the struggles and sacrifices set forth by military children.  Kelsey currently works with many military spouses to better their own physical and mental strength through the Mom Strong Academy: a program developed specifically for mamas. Today she's beginning a Combat the Challenges series on supporting our kids through the hardships they encounter as part of this lifestyle. Welcome, Kelsey! 

If there is one thing I have learned about our military kiddos, it’s that they are extremely resilient.  But even the most seasoned ‘military brat’ can have a hard time adjusting to whatever the military may throw upon families.  If you grew up in a military family, then you probably can relate to the many challenges our kiddos are faced with (especially compared to civilian friends).  And while there are numerous benefits to growing up in a military family, there are often just as many disadvantages faced by our young.

Military kids are constantly adjusting and adapting. It seems like when we finally settle in one area long enough to remember the highway system, we are forced to move yet again.  Although my own children are still young enough to pass the days with less care, I can only hope and pray that as they grow older, they will encompass a more optimistic outlook on the military lifestyle. Military children certainly are not given an easy task!  Below are some of the biggest challenges these kiddos face plus tips on how to help them through.

1. Separation

As a parent and spouse to an active duty member, I often ponder ways to make the separation ‘easier’ on my kiddos.  And any spouse I converse with often agrees.  I am constantly asking myself, ‘What can I do to help my children through this tough time?’ Or ‘How do we stay busy?’

 For most families, it is uncommon for children to be separated from their parent(s) for extended periods of time: unless of course you are a military family.  If you are anything like my family, you will quickly realize that when you combine your total time together, you have been separated far longer than you have been together (I know, gets me every time!) I’m talking deployments, trainings, schools, the works! It all adds up. You get into a routine of being separated just for the army to move things around again. Which brings up another great point; reintegration.

I will never forget. Our son was not even a week old and my husband had to deploy.  He did not return until our son was almost 11 months old.  It took nearly a month, maybe longer, for our son to get comfortable with his dad. To him [son] ‘daddy’ was a complete stranger. And it only gets harder as they get older.

Separations bring to the table a whole lot of mixed emotions; and as a kid, how do you even cope with such strong emotions? Our son is now 5 and although he loves what his daddy does, he can’t help but get angry, sad, and frustrated every time daddy must put work first. (What our spouses feel is a whole other blog post!) No matter what, separations are stressful for the entire family. 

Children respond to stress much differently from adults.  Often, children act out and become oppositional while they struggle to cope with their feelings.  It is also quite common for military kids to experience chronic sadness or even depression.  Not to mention the high anxiety.  As a result, in most young children, developmental milestones are often temporarily back-tracked.

While we simply can’t avoid whatever the military throws our way, we can control how we prepare our children and support them through separation.  And just as it is important to prepare for separation, it is also crucial to help children reconnect during the reintegration period.

Here are some ways to help with separation:

Consider the Timing

Telling a child about an upcoming deployment or separation period is probably one of the hardest decisions the parents must make.  I try to not make a preemptive strike, but I also don’t want to wait too terribly long before discussion the inevitable!  It is important to provide enough time for the entire family to process what is coming. 

In younger children, their sense of time is not fully developed, making this process that much harder. To help avoid any added anxiety, talk with your children about the upcoming changes prior to them picking it up on their own.  It is also important to think about your child as an individual and how he/she handles such changes.  For instance, my son hates change. He does not do well at all when his hot wheels are not lined up, let alone when daddy must leave…again.  The way my husband and I talk with him about what is happening varies greatly from how we talk with our daughter (although she is 2, she picks up on A LOT).  Make sure when you do decide to share the news, that you create ample time to sit and discuss your child’s reactions and questions.

 If your child is experiencing severe depression, seek support right away and talk with their doctor about their struggle.

Share Plans/Expectations

Creating a plan of action and what is to be expected can help children of all ages.  In younger children, reassuring them with words such as ‘Daddy will be gone but Mommy will be here with you every day’ and ‘Daddy loves you very much’ helps ease their minds.  Most often, younger children don’t need tons of details but rather concrete messages to answer their questions. 

 For our older kiddos, explaining more details can help reassure them. Of course, it is up to you, the parent, to decide how much detail you need to give, but remember, have an honest discussion about what is expected and how the parent that is going away will still be able to provide support; even from afar.  Work together to make a plan.

We must encourage our children to ask questions, but we must also keep in mind age appropriate answers and explanations.  For our family, we discuss what daddy needs to do for his job and how we will have time to talk with daddy (of course we can never say exactly when, it is important for my son to know that he will still be able to talk with daddy). We also talk about upcoming holidays, school events, visits with family, etc. while creating weekly and monthly goals. This helps children ‘see’ the time and work towards something (even if it is small) each week.  Although I don’t have first-hand experience with older children, taking that idea and catering it to fit the needs of any child is a great way to help prepare them.

 Here are some ways to help with reintegration:

Start the Process BEFORE the Return

Think countdowns, calendars, and conversations all about the big day.  Even if you are making it a surprise, try to bring to light some form of conversation in general about (you guessed it!) yet again another change that is about to take place.  Even though this is positive change, it is still a change.

One of the things we do (even for short separations) is a countdown called ‘A Kiss A Day While Daddy’s Away’. As the name implies, the kiddos get a Hershey kiss after dinner until daddy returns.  Prior to leaving, my husband and kids fill the jars with the chocolates after daddy kisses every single one. This not only involves the kids in a special moment, but it also helps them create a sense of time and expectation of what is to come.  There are many great ideas out there for similar ways to get creative with the kids.

It is important to create a new plan and let your children know what is expected, what {potentially} will happen, and other applicable information.  Again, work the concrete examples with the younger children.  With my son, I try to talk about how daddy will be able to play hockey again with him and read his favorite batman book to him before bed.

Manage Expectations

I felt this needed a complete area on its own because often we overlook these details.  The military is only predictable with one thing: change! Yep, ask anyone and I am sure they will agree.  Dates change, times changes, they [military] are unpredictable and almost certainly, whatever you are told will change.  Keep this in mind, especially with the younger kiddos where the time of day can make all the difference. 

 With my husband’s most recent separation from us due to his schooling, it worked best for us to have him take a taxi home because of his only flight option back home (hello CONUS to OCONUS). The kids new daddy was heading home and would be here when they woke up in the morning. This made the process much more smoother (considering how young they are) and gave mommy and daddy time to reconnect.

We (as parents) need to also manage our own expectations.  There is no telling how a younger child might react (recall my experience with our son above). It takes time and can be hard to ‘pick up where you left off’ so don’t expect too much at first.

Isn't Kelsey a wealth of knowledge? We're loving her concrete suggestions on how to handle the separating and reintegration process with little ones. Stay tuned for the next part of the Combat the Challenges Series on Thursday, 5/9

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