Strategies Child Care Providers Can Use to Help Young Children in Military Families Relieve Stress

Toddler girl crying

If you are a child care provider working with children in military families, it is important to understand the stresses of military life and to find ways to help children relieve stress in the child care setting. Even the youngest children may experience stress during major changes related to military service, such as the absence of a parent during deployment or moving to a new home.

Children also respond to the stress of the people around them. When the parent at home is sad, anxious, or preoccupied because of concern for the military parent, children are likely to show signs of anxiety themselves. Child care providers can help reduce the negative impact of stress among children in military families through careful planning, predictable routines, and activities that encourage the release of tension.

Signs of Stress or Anxiety in Children

From time to time, child care providers who regularly care for children in military families may notice behaviors that indicate a child’s anxiety or stress. Those behaviors will differ depending on the child and the situation, but there are some common indicators of stress in young children. Pay attention to the following behavior changes:

  • Changes in sleep schedules or appetite.
  • Regressing to earlier behaviors, such as  thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, or toileting accidents.
  • More negative moods, such as irritability or sadness.
  • Behavior changes, such as withdrawal from usual activities or an increase in aggression.
  • Increased need for your attention or physical contact.
  • Acting out fear, danger, or other stress-related themes in pretend play (especially if the child does not seem to be feeling any enjoyment or relief from the play).
  • Artwork that depicts stress-related themes.

Keep in mind that stress and anxiety may be related to the pressures of living in a military family, or they may result from other stressors, such as illness or the birth of a new sibling. To learn more about children’s responses to stress, take a look at What Child Care Providers Need to Understand about Stress in Military Children.

Responding to Children’s Stress

When you notice some of the behavioral changes mentioned above, pay attention. Make note of the changes you observe, and keep track of how long they go on. If the child’s anxiety is high, or the behavior changes last more than a few days, consider talking with the parent or primary caregiver about the behaviors you have noticed, and share ideas about how you can help the child. Be sensitive to the fact that a military parent, or a grandparent caring for a child while a parent is deployed, may also be under stress.

Begin with the basics. Work with the caregiver to ensure that the child:

  • is well fed and well rested,
  • has predictable routines both at home and in child care, and
  • has chances to release stress through active play.

Communicate calmly, positively, and with confidence that together you will provide the support the child needs to manage the stress.


Children digging in sand

Stress-Relieving Activities for Young Children

Although child care providers cannot change the challenges of military life that may be causing stress, you can help children learn to calm themselves and reduce their body’s stress response. Certain kinds of activities have been found to reduce children’s stress and anxiety. Consider building some of the following activities into your child care curriculum.

  • Sensory experiences: It’s no surprise that a soft blanket or toy can calm a child. Beside the fact that it’s familiar, the soft feel of the object somehow stimulates calming chemicals in the brain. Sensory experiences that focus on touch can be very soothing to young children. Playing with water, sand, dough, goop (a mixture of cornstarch and water), finger paint, or modeling clay can provide sensations that reduce stress. Repetitive movements like rocking in a rocking chair or swinging also provide a calming sensory experience.
  • Physical activity: Any kind of physical activity that gets kids energetically moving their whole bodies can help reduce stress. Physical activity increases oxygen and blood flow, and releases “feel-good” endorphins in the brain. Regular active play can also help children sleep and eat better, which helps make them more resilient when facing stress. Plan plenty of time for active play, both indoors and outdoors. And be a good role model. Children are more likely to be active when their teachers are active with them.
  •  Music:  Several different types of music can help reduce children’s stress. Slow, soothing music (especially instrumental music) helps slow down breathing, lower blood pressure, and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain. Play soothing music softly in the background during quieter times, or try an activity where you help children breathe to the beat, close their eyes and imagine floating, or slowly move their bodies to the music. Use more energetic, upbeat music to get children actively moving, dancing, and laughing – all of which create endorphins in the brain that counteract stress.
  • Reading books: Children’s books can be a valuable tool to teach children how to manage stress. Cuddling while reading a favorite book can help build a strong relationship between teacher and child. There are many good books that talk about the experiences of children in military families. For a beginning list, take a look at Children’s Books for Young Children in Military Families.
  • Art: For some children, the chance to draw or paint a picture can allow them to release the stress that they are carrying around. Set up a well-stocked art area, and add new materials occasionally to stimulate children’s creativity. Give children chances to talk about what they are creating, but don’t push them if they don’t feel like talking. Remember that the process is more important than the finished product to many young artists, and the artwork may not represent anything in particular. Keep your questions and comments open-ended (“You used a lot of brown in that picture” instead of “What is that?”).
  • Humor:  Researchers are finding more and more evidence that laughing creates beneficial changes in our bodies – it lowers blood pressure and heart rate, encourages better breathing, improves digestion, and stimulates the release of endorphins in the brain. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to get most young children to laugh. Find what tickles the funny bone of the child who is under stress, and be sure to provide regular opportunities for laughing. Don’t be afraid to be silly or goofy with the children in your child care program. As it turns out, laughter really is good medicine!

The good news is that all of the stress-reducing activities above are good for all children, whether stressed or not. Music, movement, laughter, books, art, and sensory experiences should all be a regular part of an early childhood program. But for children who are in a particularly stressful situation – such as the absence of a deployed parent – these experiences can provide real relief from stress.

Remember that children respond differently to activities. Use your knowledge of the child’s unique personality to choose activities that the whole class will enjoy and that will also help the child under stress reduce her anxiety. Then be sure to share the ideas with the parent or caregiver to try at home. Doing these types of activities together may help the whole family feel less stressed.

For More Information

To learn more about how child care providers can support young children dealing with the challenges and changes of military life, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:

Photo by crimfants / CC BY