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10 Tips for Caring for the Military Child

Melba Newsome
March 12, 2012

Whether you are the parent, grandparent, nanny or babysitter, learn how to protect and support your military child

The relocations, parental deployments, and resulting disrupted relationships that are a part of military family life can foster maturity, resourcefulness and encourage independence among military children. The military lifestyle and culture however can also present a unique set of challenges. A RAND Corporation study published in the January, 2010 issue of the Journal Pediatrics found that children in military families were more likely to report anxiety than children in the general population. They were also more likely to have difficulties in school and at home.

If you are caregiver for a military child, here are 10 things you should know to help make their adjustments smoother.

Before Separation

1. Be honest
Regardless of age, children are very perceptive. So, instead of trying to shield them from an upcoming deployment or extended training drill, prepare them for the separation with honest, open dialogue about what they can expect.

2. Demystify the destination
Use maps, books and online information to teach children about the customs and conditions of the place and/or region where the parent will be stationed. This will make the destination seem more real and help bridge the physical distance between parent and child.

During the Separation

3. Maintain the norm
Following family traditions and routines is important to promote stability and minimize disruptions. "You can do this by continuing family rituals like pizza and movie nights, 'game days', or reading aloud favorite books. For younger children bed time rituals like story time or singing favorite lullabies are reassuring and support strong connections ," says Lynette Fraga, PhD, Vice President Early Care & Education and Special Populations of Care.com. If changes cannot be avoided, discuss them ahead of time and involve the child in devising an alternate plan.

4. Encourage extra-curricular activities
Involvement in activities during and after school is a great way to establish a sense of normalcy and boost a child's relationships with his peers. Because he has no control over deployment, separation and relocations, give him a say in choosing his extra-curricular activities. "The more we can encourage children to be engaged in decision-making the more empowered they will feel," says Fraga.

5. Monitor the media
Limit the exposure to news coverage of war or other violence that might create anxiety or worry. Shielding older children from the 24/7 news cycle is harder. Therefore, be prepared to answer questions honestly but in a way that will help calm fears sparked by what they see or hear.

6. Share feelings
Children often lack the vocabulary to express the very real frustration or anger brought on by parental absences. One of the best ways to help them communicate their feelings is by talking about your own. Use simple, reassuring words to let your child know that even negative thoughts and feelings are OK to express.

7. Recognize red flags
Watch for signs of distress in children. Those in preschool or kindergarten may exhibit fearfulness, increased clinginess or changes in eating habits. Older children may complain about stomachaches or headaches, have problems at school or act out.

8. Stay connected
Thanks to technology like email, Facebook and Skype, keeping the connection between child and the away parent is much easier than decades ago. Use them regularly but don't neglect the old-school touchstones like sending photos and letters.

Reintegration

9. Be patient
Reintegration can also cause stress and unforseen emotional challenges and spark worries about future deployments. It will take time to readjust the family roles and find a new normal says Armin Brott, author of "The Military Father: A Hands-on Guide for Deployed Dads." Slowly reintegrate the returning parent into the daily routines so that everybody can adjust to a new normal.

10. Go one-on-one
Try to schedule one-on-one time for each child and the returning parent to reconnect. Let them share pictures, crafts, stories and memories to learn all you can about what happened in the child's life during the separation.

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