Learning about Stress in Young Military Children

What’s the difference between positive stress, tolerable stress and toxic stress?

Why is it pointless to reason with a child in the middle of an emotionally charged moment?

How can child care providers be a “buffer” to young children who are experiencing the stresses of military family life?

These and many other topics were addressed in a recent webinar hosted by the Child Care group of the Military Families Learning Network. Presenter Dr. Diane Bales walked us through what stress is, how it affects young children in military families, and a number of strategies that child care professionals can use to ease that stress and lessen negative impact. The presentation also included excerpts from an interview with Dr. Will Mosier, faculty at Wright State University and Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. Will shared helpful information on supporting children emotionally during stressful times.


Here are some key points that I thought were particularly helpful for child care professionals to know:

Stress is any external event or circumstance that “throws us off balance,” that significantly changes our everyday experience.  Stresses can be positive events as well as negative events. For example, having a parent return home from a long deployment is a very positive event, and yet it significantly changes up the child’s usual daily life. Until a “new normal” is established, those changes, even though they are positive, can be stressors.

Stressors cause physical and emotional responses and changes in all of us, including even very young children, that our outside of our control. In the short term, those responses can help us be alert and take action. But when stressors are overwhelming or persistent, children need additional support to bring those physically and emotionally intense responses back down to more normal levels. That’s where child care professionals can play a critical role for children in military families. Caring, knowledgeable, and sensitive providers can provide the extra support and attention to a child during the child care day that help insulate her from high levels of stress responses that all of the family members are dealing with when big changes occur.

Helping young children cope with stressful situations isn’t complicated. Children are comforted and supported by simple but intentional strategies.

  • Predictability and routine in the child care environment provide a sense of security and confidence to a child who is dealing with unpredictability and change at home. That predictability and routine include maintaining the usual rules and consequences about behavior. Though we may be tempted to “go easy” on a child who misbehaves when we know there are big changes at home, being firm and predictable in response will actually provide assurance and a sense of safety to him.
  • Listening and showing empathy to a child’s emotions, without psychoanalyzing or presuming where those emotions are coming from, is very often all that’s needed for a child to regain a sense of equilibrium and calm.
  • Young children often don’t know the words for the emotions they are feeling and can be frightened by their intensity. We can help by not only showing empathy but by giving them labels for the emotions they are feeling.  This includes positive emotions, like excitement and happiness, as well as negative emotions, such as sadness or anger.

I hope this whets your appetite for more! If you visit our “Learn” page, you will find a recording for the entire, hour-long webinar and a link to a PDF of all of the slides so that you can print them out, make notes, and have them for future reference.  You’ll also find links to related resources that can help you in understanding the stresses of young military children’s lives and more ways that you can provide that safe, caring place that will help them cope with their current situation and build their resilience to stressors in the future. Here’s the LINK.

And if you have your own stories of supporting military children and families through difficult changes, or you have more suggestions for building their ability to cope, we’d love to hear them!


This blog post was written by Kathy Reschke, Child Care Leader at Military Families Learning Network.

3 Replies to “Learning about Stress in Young Military Children”

  1. This article is one I have enjoyed sharing. The understanding of the effects of stress on children is very needed. As stated, predictability is very comforting to the brain. When children know what to expect, stress levels are reduced and children’s brains are able to be calmed. Lack of chaos allows the higher functioning brain areas to be activated. This allows a child to play, learn and pay attention and be in a better mood.

    You have so clearly explained this and have provided valuable suggestions for providing the comfort needed by developing children.
    Thank you for sharing something so beneficial!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Deb, and for sharing the article with others. As a “fan” of yours, I know how passionate you are about giving caring adults information about young children’s developing brains. In the webinar, Diane (the presenter) shared some excellent information about stress and the developing brain that caregivers of young children really need to hear and understand. Thanks for helping us reach others with this critical information, Deb!

      1. Kathy it is a pleasure to share this valuable information with those that can benefit! Thank you very much for the very nice comments and support of the work I am so passionate about. It is through working together and sharing that we can contribute to making a positive difference that all children need and deserve! Thanks for all you are doing to make this happen!

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