By Michelle DeRamus, Ph.D.
Each day more and more families are finding homes at Fort Benning and the surrounding areas, including Phenix City, AL, Fort Mitchell, AL and Columbus, GA, in large part due to the military. At Fort Benning, soldiers find the opportunity to join some of the most distinguished U.S. Army units, including: the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, the 11th Engineers Battalion, and the 75th Ranger Regiment. Along with the soldier, spouses and children also find new places to live and often begin new jobs, new schools, and even find new friends along the way. They soon become familiar with the River Walk, look forward to Friday night concerts on Broadway, and experience the local cuisine at restaurants such as Minnie’s, Ezell’s, and the Loft, as Fort Benning truly is home–for now.
It is no secret that the lives of military service members and their families differ greatly from civilian life in a variety of ways. For kids – often deemed military “brats” – the life changes and transitions that come frequently may be extremely difficult or challenging. Kids are not as emotionally mature as adults and may experience additional difficulties as a result of the unique sets of circumstances that come with the military lifestyle. As a licensed child psychologist in Phenix City, I work with many kids and families, both those who are in the military and those who are not. From my experience working with all children over the course of my career, and from talking with military family members in the area, I have identified a list of common questions or concerns that families may have due to the unique nature of the military lifestyle. This not a comprehensive list, but rather a guideline for some steps that military families may take to ease the effects that a transient lifestyle may have on their children. Of course, each individual child and circumstance is different, so please do not hesitate to consult a physician or child psychologist if you believe that your child is experiencing physical or emotional difficulties.
Common Military Family Challenges Children Experience and Some Basic Steps Parents May Take
1. PCS (military lingo for moving to a new duty station).
Every few years and sometimes more frequently, families pick up and move to follow the military service member’s career. For kids, this means leaving behind the familiar – school, teachers, coaches, friends, even the geography and favorite places of an area, such as playgrounds or restaurants. Kids may understandably struggle with this. Young children may not even understand what is happening and cannot comprehend why their best friends can no longer come over to play. While families may not have much advance notice when it is time to move, taking a moment to prepare kids for what to expect can go a long way in making the transition as smooth as possible.
- Use the internet to learn a few fun facts about your new city. See if your family’s favorite restaurant is in the new city. Look up the name of the principal at your child’s new school. If your child plays sports or is in scouts, check to see if your new city or your child’s new school has a local team, chapter, or club. Learning what might be familiar about your new location can help your child look forward to the move rather than see it as something scary.
- Also take a moment to acknowledge the sadness of leaving familiar people and places behind. Take pictures of favorite playgrounds, people, and other memorable things about your current city and make a memory book. Be sure to get phone numbers, addresses, or e-mail addresses from your child’s best friends so the kids can stay connected after the move.
- Finally, remind kids, especially young kids, of the things that will not change with the move. While you will live in a new house, they will still have their favorite stuffed animals and toys. The furniture will stay the same, you will still have family game night, and you can still walk to the mailbox every day. Continuing daily routines in your new location can be very comforting, especially to preschoolers and younger children.
2. Training, Deployments, and more
When military service members are away from the home for extended periods or are in a dangerous place such as a war zone, kids may experience anxiety or fear and will feel the disruption in routine. Again, preparation can be helpful. If kids know a parent will be leaving, whether it is for a couple weeks or a couple years, knowing ahead of time can give them time to prepare emotionally. With the military, advance notice may be in short supply, but you can prepare together a day or two or even the night before, if necessary. Take advantage of whatever time and notice is given to develop a family plan for coping with the upcoming absence.
- Show children how to take concrete steps to feel connected to parents while they are away. Before leaving, each child in the family should have a special one-on-one time with the parent who is leaving to do something fun together and give kids a chance to talk individually if they want to.
- Children can make or choose something special for their parent to take with them, such as a picture, a craft, or a special toy.
- Having a keepsake box to keep at home can also be helpful. Kids can put things in the box that help them remember special times with their parent or think positive thoughts about their parent. Items for the box might include a ticket stub, a picture, a piece of jewelry Mom wears at home, or one of Dad’s t-shirts.
Parents may wonder “How much do I tell my child about where the deployed parent is going and what might happen there?”
- Answering this question is kind of like answering the “where do babies come from?” question; the answer depends on the child’s age and emotional maturity. Younger children need simpler, more concrete answers, while teens need a more thorough understanding of what is truly happening and what might happen. A good rule of thumb is to let your child’s questions guide how much you share about the details.
- Keeping in touch through phone calls, video chats, e-mails, and even letters can help kids stay connected to the parent who is away.
- Keep in mind, though, that it’s probably best not to “schedule” phone calls or video chats at very specific times. Often circumstances arise (on either end) that can prevent the call from happening at a set time, which can lead to unnecessary anxiety, frustration, or disappointment.
- The caregiver left at home must prioritize self-care. If you’re used to being a two-parent household and you’re suddenly a single parent for an extended period of time, it can be overwhelming. Remember that you will best be able to care for your children and model appropriate coping skills for them if you are taking care of yourself. Ask for help from family or friends if you need it, take advantage of any support systems that are available to you, and be sure to take some time for yourself to recharge and deal with your own emotions.
- Be sure to find outside resources in your local area if you feel that your child needs additional help. For example, for testing and therapy services near Fort Benning, GA you could find the best child psychologist you know who accepts Tricare Prime and Standard 😉 Other resources might include Fort Benning parent support groups. Many of these resources may be located by contacting your FRG leader.
Next week in Part 2, I will address “reacclimation” after a service member’s lengthy absence, managing expectations and helping kids to understand and cope with broken promises that may arise due to an abrupt change in the military service schedule.
Dr. Michelle DeRamus is a child psychologist with Preferred Medical Group and works at the Phenix City Children’s clinic. She accepts Tricare Prime and Standard, as well as other insurances. She specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and provides diagnostic testing and therapy services for developmental delays, learning problems and ADHD. She also works with anger, anxiety, depression, family problems and peer relationships.