You’ve just learned that your military family is moving. Or you have a deployment in your future. There are so many questions buzzing in your mind. If you’re a parent, one of the first is probably this:
“How should we tell the kids?”
And it’s closely followed by this one: “When should we tell the kids?”
You know your military children are going to have an emotional reaction to big news, and it can feel heartbreaking to be the one who must explain major life changes to them. All their questions, their fears and their frustration are about to get thrown at you.
But big changes are part of life for military kids, so as a service member or spouse, you must develop strategies for talking to your kids about major news like PCS moves or deployments. The way you handle it with your children must grow and develop as they go through different ages.
Let’s explore why and how to talk to military kids about big changes in military life.
Why It’s Important to Discuss Big Changes With Kids: First, it’s important to understand why we need to set aside time to discuss big news with our military children, even when they’re very young.
- Military kids of all ages need to process emotions. Whether it’s a PCS move or a deployment, your child is going to have feelings about it. Yes, even the preschooler who doesn’t really understand what’s going on. As a parent, you need to give them time to unpack their emotions and express themselves.
- You don’t want them to be surprised. Military kids sometimes learn about a major change when they overhear a conversation between their parents and other adults. They deserve to hear family news from their parents first. Help them understand that the family will face this challenge together, as a team.
- Give them time for special moments and closure. The “right time” to tell military kids about big changes depends on their age and your family situation. But you want to give them time to say goodbye to friends if they will PCS. And it’s important to let them celebrate holidays or create shared memories with their service member parent before deployment.
Tips for Talking to Kids About PCS Moves or Deployments: Use these ideas to help you break the news of a PCS move or deployment to your military kids at different ages.
- Preschool/ kindergarten age: At this age, children don’t have a clear concept of time or distance, so there’s no need to tell them more than a month in advance unless the family is already experiencing disruptions. Even though they don’t understand geography, refer to locations and countries by name, instead of just saying “far away.” Create visual aids for young children. Reference holidays, paper chains or a visual countdown to help them understand when they will move or how long their service member will be away.
- School-age: Military kids will have many questions about deployment, so try to answer them honestly, with hope and encouragement: their parents love them every day, and the service member will come home. Brainstorm ways to keep in touch across the distance. If it’s a PCS move, children this age make friends quickly, but they are also nervous and afraid of leaving their current friends. Help the new place feel more familiar with photos of their new school (from the website), and information about sports teams or their favorite activities in the local area. If you’re moving to a new state or overseas, research the local food or culture, and give your child a taste of the fun new experiences that are ahead.
- Tweens and teens: Military kids in middle school or high school have probably moved or been through a deployment before, but don’t expect this will be easy on them. Prepare for lots of emotions, including anger and blame, when they realize the military is forcing them to go through this challenge. Give them time and space to express their feelings. Be honest about your own stress or frustrations. Then, give your kids the tools to work through stress so they can develop resiliency from this. If it’s a PCS, point out new opportunities, school classes, job possibilities or anything that will help them see the move in a positive light. Remind them they can keep in touch with friends through social media. If it’s a deployment, don’t immediately ask them to step up and take on additional household responsibilities. Instead, focus on new traditions like pizza-movie nights that will help them count down time.
Whatever changes your family faces, the important thing is to be honest and open with your children. Let them ask questions and express a range of emotions. Gently guide them to see the news as an opportunity or an adventure. Use stress-coping strategies to help your military kids develop resiliency with each major military life event.