This post is done in partnership with Stress Health, an initiative of the Center for Youth Wellness, but the opinions expressed are my own.
For military children, toxic stress can be an ongoing threat.
I know there have been seasons when we’ve been under extreme stress, and I’ve done all I can to alleviate it to keep our family on an even keel. Sometimes, it’s just so hard.
Life comes at us fast. Marriage, babies, elderly parents with illness or death, moving around a lot — sometimes on short notice or being deployed overseas, losing jobs and career as I follow my husband.
It seems that we’ve done it all.
Some years, we test really high on the stress index. It’s been a roller coaster of fifteen years and counting.
You can take this ACE quiz to find out if you experienced the kind of childhood adversity that predisposes you to toxic stress.
Helpful: Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale for ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences)
We are fortunate to have four very resilient kids.
Children may be at special risk from the stress of military life.
Living with high stress almost all the time can mirror symptoms of ADHD and PTSD (post-traumatic syndrome disorder). Behavioral and emotional issues can arise from living in perpetual flight or fight mode. It feels like constant anxiety.
Stress that Affects Military Families:
Permanent Change of Station orders (PCS)
Military life involves moving frequently. Moving is always stressful, even if it’s desired and exciting. There’s just so much to do.
Kids can get lost in the shuffle of organizing and packing, traveling and unpacking.
Taking some time to comfort and explain the moving process to kids helps them to work through their emotions. There’s a lot involved in preparing for a PCS. We each process our grief in different ways when leaving a new place and starting over.
We like to give our kids little jobs to help them own the process and feel more in control during this tumultuous time.
We purge our household goods every few years before each move and have the kids help, sorting through things they’ve outgrown. They can label their toys and choose which ones to take in their backpacks. They can put personalized stickers on their room’s boxes to easily recognize them for unloading and unpacking. They get to arrange and decorate their rooms in the new house.
Having a parent leave for months at a time is stressful on a family.
It can be dangerous for the deployed spouse, depending on his job and location.
Communication is often sporadic – and never seems available when we need it.
Anything that can go wrong seems to go wrong during deployment – injury, illness, flood, cats dying, car trouble.
Helping kids through this difficult time is a priority.
We gave our young kids pillows with pictures of Dad during our first deployment. He recorded a little book that they looked at and listened to often.
The time difference is always an issue. We have a clock labeled with the time where Dad is located. We have a countdown calendar that I printed for our youngest to mark off each day that Dad is away.
The kids each have their own iPad minis, and they often message or video-chat with Dad now that they’re older.
It’s hard to balance events of home life when I’m basically acting as a single mom to four kids. They rely on me and each other, and there’s no one to help.
Sometimes, it’s lonely and a struggle. Weekends and holidays just suck.
Homecoming is also stressful.
The expectations just don’t match the reality.
We’re not really into posters and balloons and warm fuzzy videos.
We do get to meet him at the airplane gate: That’s a perk. He’s tired and greasy from maybe 24 hours or more of travel. We’re excited but feel trepidation for the reintegration process.
I feel that any joyful moments are stolen from us when commanders and coworkers arrive at the airport baggage claim to welcome him home. There’s no privacy. I hate feeling like all eyes are on me, observing my reactions too closely. We probably don’t look or feel happy enough. We’re all running on adrenaline.
At that point, we just stand aside, uncomfortable and awkward as the military members surround him to share their understanding of the deployment.
We feel lost and forgotten.
It can take weeks to get back to a routine and used to each other again. The kids don’t know whether to smother him or ignore him. Life has gone on for months in his absence. The kids and I have all shared it, and we have our little memories and private jokes.
Maintaining close friendships is difficult with military life.
We’ve learned to jump in and try to meet people as soon as we arrive at a new location. We don’t have time to waste when we’re at a base for only two to four years.
We are transient, third culture people, and we are too quickly forgotten by friends and acquaintances once we move away.
Many people don’t understand military life and don’t want to invest in a temporary friendship.
It always hurts to be forgotten, and we sometimes build up a wall around our hearts so we’re not hurt. I’m saddened to see this in my kids as they grow up. They’re self-reliant and have few friends.
School and Activities
Kids experience stress with school and activities, and it just compounds when they have to find new ones every few years.
My kids show talent with sports, music, art, and other activities…but it’s hard to find new teachers and coaches every few years.
There’s no continuity.
Church shopping is no fun, either. We’ve all but given up on finding anywhere welcoming.
So many unknowns loom during the end of a military career.
Lots of decisions have to be made in a short time period.
When the kids are still young and living at home, we want to include them and their needs in the process of retirement. We want them to feel safe, comfortable, and happy with where we choose to retire and settle down.
When nowhere and everywhere is home, finding somewhere to settle for good is just scary.