By Terri Barnes
Military parents have many skills for guiding their children through the uncertainty of deployments and frequent moves. As the COVID-19 pandemic brings even more uncertainty, military families are using those skills and developing new ones to help their children navigate uncertainty through school closures, social distancing, stay at home orders, and worldwide health concerns.
Rachel Robertson, author of Deployment Journal for Kids and an expert in early childhood development for Bright Horizons Family Solutions, says parents should be intentional in the ways they address their children’s needs in times of uncertainty.
“As parents we have to keep children emotionally as well as physically safe,” says Rachel. “They notice our anxiety, whether verbal or nonverbal. As long as their world is safe and predictable, and the people they love and care about are safe and predictable they usually feel pretty good. As adults the best gift we can give is the strength of our calm presence, simple reassurances that make the world feel safe and manageable.”
“As adults the best gift we can give is the strength of our calm presence, simple reassurances that make the world feel safe and manageable.”
Parents can also provide stability by building predictability into each day, creating routines and sticking with them. Circumstances will require adjustments, but when possible incorporate old and familiar habits into the new normal.
Army spouse Amy Bushatz, coauthor of Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom, and Strength in Military Life and managing editor at Military.com, says maintaining consistency and routine is helpful to her two sons, who are in elementary school.
“We offer stability and consistency where we can (as we do) during moves or when their dad is gone,” Amy says. “We’ve created a daily schedule that we stick to … and we’re being really intentional about doing specific things, like getting dressed instead of spending the whole day in pajamas, spending time outside, turning off the TV or electronics, eating meals together, and going to bed on time. That’s stuff they know they can rely on every day.”
“We offer stability and consistency where we can. We’ve created a daily schedule that we stick to, and we’re being really intentional about doing specific things”
— Amy Bushatz
Stacy Allsbrook-Huisman, coauthor of Seasons of My Military Student: Practical Ideas for Parents and Teachers, whose two children are in elementary and middle school, says a routine helps kids adjust to a new schedule that may include online school.
Amanda Trimillos, a teacher and mom and also a coauthor of Seasons of My Military Student: Practical Ideas for Parents and Teachers, agrees that a schedule is important, even if it’s not as strict as it would be if there were buses to catch or a bell schedule to meet.
“It’s okay to sleep in, but get up and get dressed every day,” she says, adding that free time and play time are essential. “Go outside every day. Play music and dance.”
The benefits of free time to play and be creative go beyond fresh air and exercise and should be part of every day, says Rachel. Creative play is one way kids process emotions and events.
“It is critical in times of trauma that kids still have time to play. It’s the way they process life and stress. If they’re not talking about their feelings, one way to find out about their feelings is to observe their play.”
Watching how kids play, what they paint, draw, or create gives parents a window into what they might be feeling, a guide to the questions that will draw out those emotions when a conversation is needed.
When kids ask questions, it’s important discern the concerns that underlie their questions and to give honest answers appropriate to a child’s age and needs.
“Be appropriately honest,” says Rachel. “If your family is affected (by uncertain circumstances), let kids know what will happen, but reassure them that you will always love and care for them. If they ask a really tough question, ask them what they think before offering an answer. This will help you gauge what kind of answer they are looking for.”
A child may be asking for facts or seeking reassurance or both. Children always need the reassurance that their parents are with them and will take care of them. When talking to kids, let them direct the conversation, says Becky Harris, a nationally certified school psychologist and military spouse.
“Talk to them on a level they can understand and to the extent they are interested,” says Becky. “If you are talking about COVID-19 and they change the subject to Minecraft, then change the subject and talk about Minecraft.”
“If you are talking about COVID-19 and they change the subject to Minecraft, then change the subject and talk about Minecraft.”
If parents are concerned about changes in a child’s behavior, says Becky, they should look for patterns, changes that happen multiple times over a period days or weeks. This includes sleeping and eating patterns, their levels of activity and communication.
Another healthy habit is to choose gratitude, says Amanda.
“It’s easy to find something to panic about daily, but it is just as important to find something to be grateful about daily,” she says. “When our internet was down with four children trying to attend online classes and complete assignments, we decided to be grateful for family, sun, and teachers who showed grace in an unavoidable situation. We are teaching our children to show grace to others, and to ask for grace themselves. We remind them that school is about learning skills. Living life in a pandemic will also teach them life skills. We went on a family bike ride. We played games. We read together and laughed together. It’s an important life skill to recognize that food, drink, and family will sustain us.”
Important ways to help kids through uncertain times:
- Maintain consistency, both emotionally and physically with regular routines: Include good sleep, healthy foods, time for play, creativity, and physical activity. Spend time outside when possible.
- Answer serious questions with answers appropriate to a child’s age and underlying needs.
- Limit screen time and news intake for everyone: Children absorb information, even when they don’t seem to be listening to news broadcasts playing in the background. Turn off the news, and listen to music, or enjoy quiet time.
- Find ways kids can contribute at home and in the community. Chores at home, artwork, letters for friends, donate to a local charity helping people in need.
- Modeling good self-care is the best way parents can help kids develop healthy habits. Parents also need to tend their own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs to be strong for their children.
- Talk to a counselor. This applies to anyone in the family who would benefit from it.
Terri Barnes is a military spouse and author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life, based on her long-running column in Stars and Stripes. She is also the editor of several award-winning books from Elva Resa Publishing.
Parenting Through Uncertainty from Bright Horizons podcast: Teach. Play. Love. (featuring Rachel Robertson)
Helping Children Cope with Changes Resulting from COVID-19 from the National Association of School Psychologists