Recently, I asked a group of young children in military families a question: What were the big emotions they had? We had been enjoying time together playing music and movement games before I held a workshop with their parents on resilience.
“I get mad when my sister doesn’t let me play with her toys.”
“I’m sad when no one plays with me.”
“My brother says long division is frustrating. Can you talk to my parents about that?”
As a former military spouse, I expected to hear children talk about missing parents during training exercises or deployments or the mix of sadness and excitement that came when moving to a new town. Even though these experiences were an important part of their lives, their answers focused on the little moments that mattered most in their minds.
Joining their parents in the next room, I heard that deployment, training exercises, relocation and other challenges associated with military life were what many parents worried about. But, like their children shared, it was the everyday emotional ups and downs that impacted their lives the most — tough emotions that came out when children were tired, during sibling conflicts, when making the transition to a new preschool, and so on. Some parents mentioned that challenging emotions were heightened before, during or right after a big transition (like moving to a new duty station, or a parent leaving or returning from a deployment), but these big emotions came out in everyday ways.
The answers shared by children and adults alike emphasized that children in the military are everyday kids, leading extraordinary lives. Just like all children, kids in the military have many emotions. Learning skills to manage the many emotions that arise day-to-day can help foster resilience in the face of challenges — big and small. This is called emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence develops when children have:
- Safe, supportive relationships with caring adults,
- Positive role models who are practicing their own emotional intelligence skills, and
- Opportunities to learn and practice these skills themselves.
Developing emotional intelligence is an essential part of promoting resilience for all children, but practicing these skills may look a little different in military families. Try these strategies to help the military children in your life manage their many emotions.
Promote safe, supportive relationships with caring adults.
Let children know they are loved when you are together and when you are apart. When family time is limited, how you spend that time may feel especially important. Avoid putting too much pressure on these moments. Put aside technology and spend quality time doing things that you and your child enjoy. Remember that children care most about spending time with the important adults in their lives, not the little details.
Reassure children that you still love them when you are away. Tell them: “Our family is most important to me and that’s why I want to make sure other families feel safe like we do.”
Make a plan to stay in touch as often as possible when apart. Create a family photo album for the service member to take with them and one for children to keep at home. Make recordings of the service member reading favorite bedtime stories or singing a favorite song. Set up a special box where your children can put notes, letters, pictures, drawings or other items to share with the service member via video call or the next time they are together.
Be a positive role model.
Share your feelings and the strategies you use to manage your feelings with your children. Talking about your own feelings lets children know that their feelings are normal.“When I miss mom, I look at her picture and write down what I want to tell her about next time we talk. Do you want to write something on my list to tell mom?”
Show children that they can trust you to answer their tough questions. As children get older, they may have questions about the service member’s job or worry about the safety of service member(s). Reassure children that they are safe and answer children’s questions calmly in a way that you feel comfortable.
Provide opportunities for children to learn and practice emotional intelligence.
Let children know that all of their feelings are okay. When children struggle with big emotions during little moments (such as not finding the shirt they want to wear), it can be hard to respond sensitively when there are more serious issues at hand. These everyday moments, however, can help children practice the skills they need to manage their emotions during more challenging moments.
Use books or high-quality media to talk about emotions outside of emotionally charged moments. As you read together, ask questions: “How did that character feel when his dad had to go away? Have you ever felt that way?”
Talk about your family’s emotion rules. How would you like the children and adults in your family to show their emotions when they are scared? Sad? Angry? Lonely? Talking about these rules together as a family and with your child’s other caregivers can help create consistency in the support your child receives at home, school and across caregivers.
Growing up in the military can be a source of strength and pride for children. From the outside, the ups-and-downs of military life may seem filled with hardship, but it’s important to remember that these experiences are part of everyday life for kids in the military. That doesn’t mean these experiences are easy, but practicing emotional intelligence can help children demonstrate resilience while learning important life skills and developing a sense of civic duty and service.