By Courtney Woodruff
“I hate everything.”
The harsh words sounded foreign as they came out of my five-year-old’s mouth. Suddenly, I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me.
Looking back at him in the car’s rearview mirror, I was shocked by what I saw: his arms were folded tightly over his chest, forming a physical and emotional barrier between us, and he glared at me so fiercely I was afraid I might vaporize. I had never seen him this angry before.
My first instinct was to panic.
What is happening to our sweet, sensitive boy? What are we doing wrong? We’re ruining his life, I thought to myself.
My husband had only been away for a handful of weeks, and we were already seeing emotional and behavioral changes in our typically mild-mannered little boy.
As a doting parent who wants nothing but the best for my children, my initial response to this jarring situation was to frantically consider the ways in which I might be able to remove all traces of stress from my son’s life as a feeble attempt at protecting him.
I’m learning, though, not only is this method unrealistic– not to mention practically impossible– strong people are not made by avoiding challenges, altogether. Physical, mental and emotional muscles are developed when we work to find new and better ways to overcome in times of trial and adversity.
The best thing we can do to foster growth and resilience in our military children is to model resilient behavior.
While we work to strengthen ourselves and acquire the skills we need to make it through the unique challenges of military life, our children learn by the example we set for them.
You can help foster resilience in your military child by …
Learning to manage your stress levels.
In times of frustration, use calming techniques in front of your children. Try counting down aloud from 10, take deep breaths, turn on soothing music, exercise regularly (even if it is just a few minutes at the same time every day, go on a walk together, or implement quiet times into your daily routine. It may feel silly at first, but your children are more likely to form their own healthy habits when they see you working to manage your stress levels.
Looking for the positives in potential negative situations.
Re-framing negative events in a positive light helps children shift their perspective of potentially traumatic events. For example, instead of dwelling on what you are leaving behind in an upcoming PCS, talk about all of the things you are looking forward to most at your next duty station, including the opportunity to make new friends and experience places you may never have gotten the chance to otherwise.
Journaling is an effective way to sort through, make sense of and find meaning in cluttered thoughts and emotions. Pick up a couple of notebooks to share with your children. Encourage them to write or draw about whatever is on their mind each day while you do the same.
Children long to know their feelings matter and that they are not alone. Encourage them to ask questions and share their thoughts and fears with you. Then, let them know you have similar struggles, and you are all in this together.
Partnering with your spouse.
Your spouse is your most powerful ally, especially when it comes to raising your children. When your kids see you doing your best to work together as a team for your family– even if you are physically separated by a deployment– it helps build a healthy sense of stability into their lives while also laying the foundation for them to form healthy relationships with others in the future.
After taking a few deep breaths while working to swallow the lump that had formed in my throat, I addressed my fuming son in the backseat.
“I miss Daddy. Don’t you?”
At first, I was not sure he heard me, but after a moment, his face softened a bit, and he uncrossed his arms.
“Yeah,” he mumbled quietly as he turned to look out the window.
“It’s okay to miss him, you know.” I continued. “It’s hard to be away from him. He misses us, too. Would you like to draw him a picture when we get home? I bet he would love that.”
In the rearview mirror, I could see a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. “Yeah. How many more nights until he comes home, again?”
“A lot,” I sighed. “But, we also have a lot of fun things to do before he gets back.”
It is only natural for us to want to shield our children from stress and heartache. However, we have the opportunity to use the challenges we face together for their good; to equip our children with the armor and tools they need to grow and build resilience in their lives while teaching them how to use them along the way.
Courtney is a military spouse, mom of 2 boys, and part-time writer-editor for a travel & lifestyle magazine serving military families stationed in Europe. She has a heart for our troops and their families and hopes to share what little she has learned along the way to help others overcome the unique challenges of military life. You can follow her adventures at her blog, Courtney At Home, or through her social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. She writes the monthly column, The Resilient Homefront, on MilitaryOneClick.