Child care professional Kara can tell when a parent of one of her toddlers is deployed simply by the increase in tantrums and clinging and the loss of skills like potty training.
What’s happening here? The short answer is stress. Kara’s toddlers are communicating (sometimes very loudly) that they are experiencing changes to their small world that they don’t understand, have no control over, and don’t know what to do about. Their bodies and brains are reacting with the hard-wired “fight-or-flight” response. They are using their very limited toolkit of strategies to make the bad feelings go away.
One of the most important ways that child care professionals can support young children is to understand what kinds of circumstances are most stressful for them. One expert in children and stress calls these circumstances vulnerability points – times when young children’s emerging ability to manage their own emotions is overwhelmed by the circumstances. Researchers studying children in a variety of traumatic and stressful circumstances have identified the most common vulnerability points, especially for young children. As you read through this list, think how likely these situations are for a child from a military family.
Six Vulnerability Points for Young Children
Parental loss/separation: Parents are young children’s first and most important attachment figures. The parent-child relationship is where infants first learn to trust that their needs will be met and that they can safely explore their world because they can always return to the security and warmth of that person. It’s not surprising, then, that having a parent leave and not be physically available anymore is one of the most disruptive, confusing, and upsetting experiences for a very young child. While hearing the parent’s voice on a phone or seeing him or her on a computer screen can help keep the relationship going, it can also be a confusing thing to a child too young to understand that the parent is not really there.
Significant change in parental behavior: Young children are also stressed when the behavior of a parent changes markedly, especially the parent’s interactions with the child. From birth, children notice repetition and develop a sense of “how things work,” including the behavior of each parent. Children come to depend on their understanding of how their parent behaves and responds to them. When that behavior changes – when the parent doesn’t respond in the same way he or she usually does – the child notices. When the parent repeatedly behaves in an unfamiliar way, the child becomes confused, frightened, and insecure – in other words, stressed.
Adult criticism or rejection: When a parent’s behavior includes criticism or rejection, it’s also stressful and confusing, especially if it’s unexpected. It’s important, though, to remember that it’s the child’s perception of the adult’s behavior that matters, rather than what the adult intended. A parent may withdraw from a child for very good reasons that have nothing to do with the child. But it’s very likely that the child will feel that the parent’s choice not to be with him is his fault.
Loss of familiar places or things: Young children thrive when they are in an environment that is familiar to them, where they can feel confident in their ability to play, learn, get along and have their needs met. When children are suddenly put into a completely unfamiliar environment where they don’t know where things are and nothing looks “right,” it can be very unsettling and stressful.
Change in routine or unpredictability: Young children thrive when they know what’s coming next. When the routine or schedule is changed, children don’t know what’s happening next. This creates a sense of fearful anxiety, even though their important people are still available to them.
- Situations in which they have no control: All of the above situations are more stressful when a child has no control over what’s happening. If major changes repeatedly happen to the child, with no opportunity for the child to feel any kind of control, he or she may develop a sense of “learned helplessness,” a loss of belief that he or she can take action, make decisions, or change circumstances.
Impact of Intensity and Duration on Stress
It’s also important to understand that the impact of these vulnerability points, or stressors, is cumulative. In other words, one stressor that only lasts a short time is likely to have a relatively mild, fairly short impact. Most young children will bounce back without much difficulty, especially if they have understanding adults to help. But the longer a stressor goes on, or the more stressors a child experiences at the same time, the greater and more long-term the impact on the child. Young children simply don’t have the psychological resources to be able to cope with multiple or long-lasting stressors.
Stress that is intense or long-lasting causes the body’s “fight-or-flight” reaction to stay stuck in the “on” position. Although these fight-or-flight chemicals that flood the body during a stressful situation protect children in the short-term, they can have very negative effects on the brain and body when they remain at high levels for long periods of time. This is especially true for very young children, whose brains and bodies are still developing and are therefore more vulnerable to negative effects.
Vulnerability Points in Military Families and Children
Unfortunately, military life for most service members and their families is riddled with these vulnerability points. Long or frequent deployments, training away from home, reintegration after returning home, and frequent relocations to a new duty station are expected. In addition, some families must cope with the service member’s injury or mental health challenges. Financial challenges can create added stress for the adults in the family. All of these circumstances can take a toll on the relationship between parents, which adds another layer of stress for every family member. Although it’s true that many, if not most, adults in military families find the internal and external resources to cope successfully through these circumstances, it’s also true that their young children benefit greatly from having additional support when they are most vulnerable.
Seven Ways to Support Vulnerable Children
Learn about stress and young children. You’re already well on your way to being more supportive simply by understanding what you’ve read so far. You can learn more through the resources listed at the end of this article. When you are aware of young children’s vulnerability points, you will be more alert and sensitive in meeting their needs, especially during stressful times.
Anticipate. Work hard to develop an open, trusting relationship with military parents so that they are more likely to let you know when a potentially stressful situation will be, or already is, occurring. Then you can anticipate their child’s needs and provide extra support.
Expect changes in children’s behavior during vulnerability points. Remember that these are children’s normal responses and attempts to cope. It can be helpful to keep notes about these changes in behavior. You may only use them for your own reference as you intentionally plan ways to support a child, but it may also be helpful to share observations with parents who are concerned with how their child is coping with a difficult situation. Be aware of your tone when sharing observations with parents. Rather than communicating with alarm or judgment, frame your observations in reassurance and hope. Remember that parents are trying to cope with the stressful situation, too. What they need most is an ally, someone they can depend on to help them provide for their child’s well-being. Here is another resource that can help you navigate these sensitive conversations.
Maintain familiarity and predictability in the child care setting. When big changes in the family create confusion and uncertainty for a young child, spending time in a place that is familiar and predictable is incredibly comforting for the child. The child care environment can be a safe place to relax, to feel relief from the body’s and brain’s stress responses, to “regroup” emotionally, and to refuel confidence and good humor. Be attuned to any changes in your child care environment or schedule, minimize them as much as possible for the vulnerable child, and provide extra support when changes are unavoidable.
Incorporate simple activities into the daily schedule to help reduce the body’s physical responses to stress. These changes in a child’s body are the most harmful to their developing brains and general health if they remain unchecked for extended periods of time. This article describes six stress-relieving activities that you can easily integrate into a child’s day.
Give the child plenty of opportunities to make choices, be in control, and feel competent. Child care settings are full of small opportunities – make the most of them, especially when a child is vulnerable to stress. Each time you give the child the chance to be in control by making a choice, even when it’s something small, it helps to balance the circumstances over which they don’t have control.
- Communicate affection, comfort, and most of all hope to vulnerable children. You can’t change the circumstances that are causing stress for the child or family. But you can help children cope and develop a resilient attitude by saying, through words and actions, “This is so hard, I know. But I’m here to help you get through this. You are safe and accepted here, no matter what.”
Coping with the challenges of military family life can be difficult for young children as well as their parents, perhaps more so because they don’t have a wealth of past experience or the capacity of a fully developed emotional regulation system as resources. But they do have you, and you can provide the structure, comfort, understanding, and patience that will help them successfully navigate vulnerability points.
For More Information
The following resources may help you understand more about stress, behavior, and resilience in young children.
- “Children Under Stress: Understanding the Language of Behavior” (recorded webinar)
- “Toxic Stress: The Facts“ (article and resources from Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child)
- “Honoring Our Babies and Toddlers: Supporting Young Children Affected by a Military Parent’s Deployment, Injury, or Death” (booklet from Zero To Three)
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Military Children and Families (website)
- Better Brains for Babies: Stress page (website)