When Young Military-Connected Children are Most Vulnerable

crying Asian preschool boyStudies of military families with young children have shown that, during a parent’s long deployment, preschoolers are more likely to show aggressive or withdrawn behavior. Many experienced providers can also attest to the relationship between significant change at home and more frequent tantrums, defiance, and physical aggression in some children, and withdrawal, clinging and loss of skills, such as toileting or language, for other children.

What’s happening here? The short answer is stress. Their behavior is communicating (sometimes very loudly) that these children are experiencing changes to their small world that they don’t understand, have no control over, and don’t know what to do about. Their bodies and brains are reacting with the hard-wired “fight-or-flight” response.

That’s stress in a nutshell and even very young children experience it.

One of the most important ways that child care professionals can support young children is to understand what kinds of circumstances are most stressful for them. Dr. Karen Peterson, professor and expert in children experiencing stress and trauma, calls these circumstances “vulnerability points” – times when young children’s emerging ability to manage their own emotions is overwhelmed by circumstances.  These are also circumstances that have the greatest potential to negatively impact their developing brains and bodies.

Six Vulnerability Points for Young Children

Research studying children in a variety of traumatic and stressful circumstances has identified the most common vulnerability points, especially for young children. As you read through this list, think how likely these situations are to occur for a child from a military family.

  • Parental loss/separation: The parent-child relationship is where children first learn to trust that their needs will be met and that the world is a safe, predictable place. It’s not surprising, then, that having a parent leave and not be physically available any more is one of the most disruptive, confusing and upsetting experiences for a very young child.
  • Significant change in parental behavior: Young children are also stressed when the behavior of a parent changes markedly. Children come to depend on their understanding of how their parent acts and responds toward them. When that behavior changes, the child notices. When the parent doesn’t revert back to the expected behavior but instead repeatedly behaves in an unfamiliar way, the child becomes confused, frightened, and insecure.
  • Adult criticism or rejection: When a parent’s behavior includes criticism or rejection, it’s also stressful and confusing, especially if it’s unexpected. It’s important, though, to remember that it’s the child’s perception of the adult’s behavior that matters, rather than what the adult intended. A parent may withdraw from a child for very good reasons that have nothing to do with the child. But it’s very likely that the child will interpret the behavior as his fault.
  • Loss of familiar places, things: When children are suddenly put into a completely new and unfamiliar environment where they don’t know where things are and nothing looks “right,” it can be very unsettling and stressful.
  • Change in routine, unpredictability: Similarly, young children thrive when they know what’s coming next. When the routine and schedule is changed, it creates a sense of fearful anxiety.
  • Situations in which they have no control: All of the above situations are made more stressful when a child has no control over what’s happening.

Military Families and Children

Unfortunately, military life for most service members and their families is riddled with these “vulnerability points.” Long or frequent deployments or training away from home, reintegration after returning home, and frequent relocations to a new duty station are an expected part of life in the military service. In addition, some families must cope with the service member’s injury and/or mental health challenges. Financial challenges can create added stress for the adults in the family. All of these circumstances can take a toll on the relationship between parents, which adds another layer stress for every family member.

Mother comforting her sonWhile it’s true that many, if not most, of the adults in military families will find the internal and external resources to cope successfully through these circumstances, it’s also true that their young children will benefit greatly from having additional support during these times when they are most vulnerable. A knowledgeable, skilled and sensitive child care professionals can provide the structure, comfort, understanding and patience that will help them successfully navigate vulnerability points.

To hear Dr. Peterson talk in more depth about young children’s vulnerability to stress and how you can help them cope, listen to the recording of her presentation, “Children Under Stress, Part 1: Interpreting the Language of Behavior.” 

Articles on Stress and Young Military-Connected Children:

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

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