Some of the most common experiences in the lives of military families – long separations, reunions, frequent moves – are also some of the most disorienting and upsetting kinds of experiences for young children. It’s not surprising, then, that they often show troubling changes in behavior during big upsets like these. But there are several ways that child care providers can help ease children’s feelings of stress and provide support and comfort as they cope.
- Learn about stress and young children. When you are aware of young children’s vulnerability points and understand how stress affects their brains and bodies, you will be more sensitive and effective in meeting their needs.
- Anticipate stressful events. Work hard to develop an open, trusting relationship with military parents so that they are more likely to let you know when a potentially stressful situation will be, or already is, occurring. Then you can anticipate their child’s needs and provide extra support.
- Notice changes in children’s behavior during vulnerability points. It can be helpful to keep notes about these changes in behavior. You may only use them for your own reference as you intentionally plan ways to support a child, but it may also be helpful to share observations with parents who are concerned with how their child is coping with a difficult situation. Be aware of your tone when sharing observations with parents. Rather than communicating with alarm or judgment, frame your observations in reassurance and hope. Remember that parents are trying to cope with the stressful situation, too. What they need most is an ally, someone they can depend on to help them provide for their child’s well-being. Here is another resource that can help you navigate these sensitive conversations.
- Maintain familiarity and predictability in the child care setting. When big changes in the family create confusion and uncertainty for a young child, spending time in a place that is familiar and predictable is incredibly comforting for the child. The child care environment can be a safe place to relax, to feel relief from the body’s and brain’s stress responses, to “regroup” emotionally, and to refuel confidence and good humor. Be attuned to any changes in your child care environment or schedule, minimize them as much as possible for the vulnerable child, and provide extra support when changes are unavoidable.
- Incorporate simple activities into the daily schedule to help reduce the body’s physical responses to stress. These changes in a child’s body are the most harmful to their developing brains and general health if they remain unchecked for extended periods of time. This article describes six stress-relieving activities that you can easily integrate into a child’s day.
- Give the child plenty of opportunities to make choices, be in control, and feel competent. Child care settings are full of small choice-making opportunities – make the most of them, especially when a child is vulnerable to stress. Each time you give the child the chance to be in control by making a choice, even when it’s something small, it helps to balance the circumstances over which they don’t have control.
- Communicate affection, comfort, and most of all hope to vulnerable children. You can’t change the circumstances that are causing stress for the child or family. But you can help children cope and develop a resilient attitude by saying, through words and actions, “This is so hard, I know. But I’m here to help you get through this. You are safe and accepted here, no matter what.”
Coping with the challenges of military family life can be difficult for young children as well as their parents, perhaps more so because they lack their parents’ experience and resources. But they do have YOU, and you can provide the structure, comfort, understanding, and patience that will help them successfully navigate times of stress and develop resilience to cope with changes in the future that are part of growing up in a military family.
Explore other articles, recorded webinars, and other resources related to young military-connected children, stress, and providing supportive care.