Q&A: How To Support Your Military Child Through Difficult Times

In honor of April as the Month of the Military Child, we wanted to share some resources for military families and children from healthcare professionals.

The life of a military-connected child is one of constant change. In addition to the typical stressors of being a kid, a military child faces a unique set of challenges, including separation during deployment and being relocated across the country – or even the world. It is estimated that miliary connected children move 6-9 times during their K-12 education. Military connected children move and change schools 3x more often than their civilian peers.

Being a military child means always having to adjust and adapt to an array of changes. Understanding how to support children during these challenges begins with paying close attention to their behavior and emotions and using available resources when needed.

These tips and strategies are focused on helping children and their parents create a supportive environment and manage behaviors that can occur during a time of stress and change. Follow us on Instagram? Don’t miss our military child reel.

Special thanks to my collaboration partners – Speech Language Pathologist Lori Allen M.S., CCC-SLP, BCS-CL of Tribe Rehabilitation, Occupational Therapist Cameran McWilliams, M.S., OTR/L of Tribe Rehabilitation, Licensed Mental Health Councilor Jessica Moreno LHMC, and myself Physical Therapist Cathlyn Carignan, PT, DPT

Question: My child seems to being having more tantrums and outbursts since our sailor left. I notice they are even worse when we are at the commissary and they notice other adults in uniform. What can I do?

Strategy 1:

Prep in advance is highly important for difficult transitions and prevention of triggers that could initiate a tantrum. Social stories are highly recommended for significant changes in a child’s life. Taking pictures of important people, places, and events that occur during your week and setting up your child for success by discussing these prior to participating in an activity or running an errand can ease the child’s anxiety, sadness, and frustration tremendously. Add these into your daily routine and talk about them often.

When in public and a tantrum occurs, change the child’s environment by walking outside and giving him/her space to calm down, then validate their emotions and talk to them about why they are upset (if they are of age to understand). If they are younger, changing their environment and redirecting them to something different is a successful strategy followed by big hugs and validation after the tantrum. Do not leave the commissary and go home, wait it out and return to get groceries. The moment you leave, you are reinforcing the negative behavior and it will continue every time the child is in a similar situation.

Strategy 2:

Understanding your child’s triggers is important; that is the first step! Tantrums are always stressful, especially when they occur in social settings. There are a few things to consider here. Processing your child’s emotions (positive and negative) is incredibly helpful in teaching your child how to identify feelings and express them appropriately. This can be done during play, frustrations, excitement, story time, and during social interactions. When a tantrum occurs, you want to do your best in sharing your calm. This takes practice.

I recommend focusing on “the 3 Rs”…

Regulate: focusing on soothing your child and making them feel safe and loved; then

Relate: validate their feelings with your words and tone of voice. This create connection with your child; then finally

Reason: only once your child is calm, can you then talk about alternatives to the behaviors while enforcing limits you set before. Anticipating this struggle may help you mentally prepare for your shopping trip. If there is no other option but to take your child with you, make sure to prep the child for the shopping trip, talk about seeing others in uniform and how that makes them feel, remind them how you can help when they are feeling that way. Give them a special job while shopping, ask for help- ask a cashier or store worker to hold your cart to the side so that you can support your child during their tough time.

People are more understanding than we think and while you are practicing connecting with your child during these tough moments, you’ll begin to feel proud of yourself for sharing your calm, gain confidence in your ability to meet your child’s needs in those moments, and normalize these tough experiences for other parents who may be observing the moment.

Question: I feel like it is hard for my child to settle down before bed. They often as to sleep in my bed and I don’t want fall into that habit.

Strategy 1:  

Set a bedtime routine and stick with it consistently. Consistency is the key to success! Depending on age, some activities could include bath time followed by baby lotion deep pressure massage, diaper/pull-up/undies and pjs, then read a book and snuggle (setting a timer is always very helpful) and once the timer goes off, it is lights out. Sound machines tend to help tune out noises and makes the transition to going to sleep and staying asleep easier.

Strategy 2:

Sleep challenges can be typical throughout childhood and can vary throughout different stages of development.

First and foremost, it is important to identify a sleep routine that feels right for you and your child. If your child’s sleep is disrupted after the other parent has been deployed, this is a normal response and I encourage you to give yourself and your child grace during this adjustment. If you want to avoid “falling into the habit”, maintain the routine with some extra understanding and flexibility surrounding the time it may take to readjust. Keep your bedtime routine simple and consistent so that your child’s brain and body can prepare and respond to your routine. Consider spending quiet/calm time in his/her room prior to bedtime to increase comfort and enjoyment in the room. Decrease exposure to stimulations such as lights and sounds. Bedtime is also a great moment for a connection ritual.

One of my favorites from Becky Bailey’s “I Love You Rituals” book is “Story Hand.” This is a brief bonding activity in which you can tell a reassuring and comforting story about your child focusing on worries she may be experiencing or if you just want to highlight successes from her day. So, while you are tucking her into bed, you can hold her hand and starting with her pinky, provide gentle massage to each finger as you state something positive that happened that day or identify a worry she is feeling. As you move to each next finger, you provide a comforting statement or a reflection of a success from the day. Once you get to her thumb, you provide a final reassuring statement as you tuck her thumb into the palm of her hand, wrapping all other fingers around it.

(Ex: “It’s story time. This little finger knew that you were really missing daddy today. This little finger remembers that we got to say hi to daddy’s picture and give it a big kiss, This little finger really enjoyed drawing a special picture to send daddy in the mail. This little finger knows how much grandma/grandpa/brother/and mommy all love you! And this finger knows that you can always ask for a hug and a story about daddy when your feeling sad or just missing him.”)

Question: What can I say to my child when they tell me “I miss Mommy or Daddy?”

Strategy 1:

Validate the child’s feelings by stating, “I miss Mommy or Daddy too.” Encourage the child to draw a picture to create a book of artwork, learn a new dance, or participate in a new activity to give/show to mommy/daddy when they return home. Having them look at pictures and videos or listen to favorite songs of mommy/daddy as well as talking about how much fun you guys will have upon family members returning home could also be beneficial in validating but also redirecting their big emotions in a positive manner. You can also set-up a countdown calendar until mommy/daddy returns and have the child place stickers to mark off each day, which provides a visual of when their parent will be able to give them a big hug! A pillow made with mommy or daddy’s picture they can carry around and physically hug when they begin missing their loved one is another great option.

Strategy 2:

While it can be hard to hear your child missing the other parent or feeling sad or angry that they cannot see the other parent, it is important to focus on validating your child’s feelings rather than feeling the need to distract them or stop the negative feelings. It is healthy for your child to express these feelings with you and give them the space to share their emotions is the best thing you can do for your child. Validating the feeling he or she is expressing is incredibly helpful for your child to process, talk about, and cope with his or her hard feelings. Your child doesn’t necessarily need a solution or fix in that moment, they need to feel heard.

Question: My child’s teacher says they have been acting out more at school. What can I do?

Strategy 1:

One of the best places to start is spending time in your child’s classroom or having a therapist, school psychologist, or learning specialist evaluate your child in the classroom to assess the situation. Having a meeting with your child’s teacher to strategize ideas and positive reinforcement techniques that could be used in the classroom and at home is also very beneficial when working on behaviors in different settings. It is also very important to give your child a mental health day from school to spend the day with you every so often as a reward as needed.

Strategy 2:

Communication with the teacher and other supportive staff at the school is key. It is incredibly helpful to let the teacher know about the adjustments your child is experiencing so that the teacher can maintain a supportive perspective and work collaboratively with you to meet your child’s needs. Depending on the age of your child means this support may look different. Providing a safe space for the child to go when feeling overwhelmed or emotional and have some items to help him/her regulate in that moment can be implemented. If the teacher is able to spend a few minutes with your child in that safe space to assist in regulating and processing what triggered the behavior can be an opportunity for the teacher and child to connect and problem-solve together what the child could do next time when experiencing a hard feeling.

Question: I feel like since my husband left my 2-year-old has not been talking as much.

Strategy 1:

Make sure that you are taking time daily to spend one-on-one with each child engaging in interactive play on the floor and/or reading books in your lap so your child knows they have your full attention. Most importantly, make sure you are emotionally regulated around your child, you may take a break to go cry but always come back to them in good spirits because children feed off your

emotions. If you choose to talk about mommy or daddy, it should always be positive and always remind the child that he/she cares about them. Always label their feelings, “It is okay that you miss your mommy/daddy,” “It is okay that you are sad, why don’t we create a video for mommy/daddy today and save it for when she/he returns.”

Strategy 2:

With your husband leaving, this brings up many emotions not only for your child, but also for yourself. While trying to be patient and meet the needs of your child, you may find yourself feeling triggered or stressed with these new challenges. I encourage you to give yourself and your child grace. Make time to connect with your child without pressure to “perform”. Focus on allowing your child to lead in play and if he/she is not talking, try narrating what he/she is doing during play. Whenyour child uses sounds or gestures rather than the words you know he/she has, model the words for him/her so that you continue to expose him/her with the words for the request. Encourage other supportive caregivers to do the same. If you feel that your child appears to be adjusting to the new routine and you continue to have concerns for regression of language, reach out to your pediatrician and/or local early intervention program for further guidance.

Based in Jacksonville, FL, Tribe Rehabilitation is a non-profit rehabilitation center serving children with disabilities birth to five years old and their families. Current services offered include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, feeding therapy, co-treatments, parent trainings, social play groups and mental health services (coming soon) . Their location is a fully-functioning commercial home which allows creative and diverse therapy. For Tricare Prime, Tribe provides in-network benefits.  For Tricare Select, Tribe provides in-network benefits, but you may still have a small co-pay. 

For more Military Child Month resources, be sure to check out Department of Defense, Military Child Education Coalition and Military OneSource. For more related blog posts, click here.

“This article is provided for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute providing medical advice or professional services. The information provided should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or delay, and those seeking personal medical advice should consult with a licensed physician.”

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