What Child Care Providers Need to Understand about Stress in Military Children

Child holding soldier's hand

There’s no question that military life can be stressful for all members of military families, including young children. Child care providers working with children from military families need to recognize that living in a military family has emotional ups and downs and find ways to help children cope with the stresses of military family life. The first step in helping children manage their stress is to understand how and why children in military families experience stress.

The Body’s Stress Response System

Stress is the body’s hard-wired response to any situation or event that is new and different. Events that cause stress – known as stressors – can be positive as well as negative. Even an exciting event, such as having a new baby sister, is a source of stress because it is a major change to the family.

When the brain perceives change, it floods the body with adrenaline. Blood pressure increases, the heart rate goes up, and the person becomes focused on handling the stressful situation. These changes are known as a stress response (sometimes called the “fight or flight” response). The stress response is useful in the short term because it enables the body to meet an unusual and immediate threat with immediate action. When the threat ends, the body gradually returns to normal.

Short-term stresses are not harmful and can even help children learn how to manage a stressful situation. Stress becomes more problematic for young children when it is severe and prolonged. When children are frequently under stress, the brain is constantly flooded with stress hormones that change or slow brain development. Children experiencing long-term toxic stress are less ready to learn, relate less well to others, and may be more aggressive or withdrawn. Young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of ongoing stress on their developing brains.

Sources of Stress for Children in Military Families

In addition to the usual challenges of childhood (such as conflicts with others, common fears, and new situations), young children in military families face unique stressors. Military life brings specific changes that can cause stress in children. Keep in mind that major changes to everyday life cause some degree of stress in every child. Some of the most common military-related stressors may include the following:

  • Moving to a new community
  • Attending a new child care program
  • Deployment of a parent
  • Homecoming of a deployed parent
  • Being cared for by someone different (such as grandparents) while parents are deployed
  • A military parent’s injury or disability
  • Overhearing a conversation or news story that suggests that the parent is in danger
  • Changes in the mood or behavior of the non-deployed parent while the other parent is deployed
  • Tensions or challenges in the relationship between the parents

Keep in mind that children react differently to a specific stressor. Children are born with specific temperaments that influence their perceptions of the world and their reactions to change. Some children enjoy the noise and activity of a typical child care environment, but others find it stressful. Moving to a new home may disrupt one child’s behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns but cause fewer noticeable changes in another child.

Creating a Safe Environment for Children

When a child is dealing with a stressor related to military life, secure relationships with adults are essential. Secure, trusting relationships with important adults – including a child care provider – can help the child better manage her stress. Spending one-on-one time with the child, responding sensitively to her needs, ensuring that the child care routine is consistent, and making familiar toys available are small ways that child care providers can help the child feel secure.

Child care providers can also help children in military families by creating opportunities to relieve stress within the child care setting. Sensory experiences, active play, creating music, and reading books that reflect the challenges of military life are activities that may help children deal with stressors specific to military families. For more specific ideas, check out Strategies Child Care Providers Can Use to Help Young Children in Military Families Relieve Stress.

Communicating with Military Families

Communicating with a child’s family is another key way to support young children in coping with the challenges of military family life. By intentionally nurturing and building a strong relationship with military parents, child care providers lay a foundation for talking with them about the stresses of military family life and the impact on their child. When trust between provider and parents has been built, they can work together to identify signs of stress and find strategies to help that child cope with the stressors in his life. When all the caring adults in a child’s daily life are working together, it’s the child who benefits most!

If you are a child care provider, here are a few tips for enhancing your communication with parents in military families:

  • Begin building a positive relationship with parents as soon as their child enters your child care program. Even short conversations at drop-off and pick-up can help you connect with parents.
  • Encourage parents to share changes in the child’s life, so you can be prepared to help the child deal with the stressors while he is in child care.
  • Help parents understand how young children respond to stressors of military life, such as a parent’s deployment or return from deployment. Emphasize that stress is a normal response to the life changes children face.
  • Encourage parents to take care of themselves. Remind them that even the youngest children respond to the emotions of the people around them. When parents manage their own stress, they also help their children feel less stressed.
  • Emphasize that you are partners with them to support their child through the changes of military life. Explain that together you can help their child cope with the stressors that come their way.

By providing parents and children in military families with consistent, sensitive, responsive child care, you become a trusted partner who can help children weather the stresses of military life with confidence and resilience.

For More Information

To learn more about child care for children in military families, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:

You can also read more in our Child Care and Military Families blog.