U.S. military families have unique experiences that non-military families do not have. One is that frequently moving is a constant in military life. Military assignments that cause a move are the general policy of the U.S. military. A permanent change of station (PCS) is a military move that may be caused by changing troop deployments. It is also the military’s belief and policy that cross-training, by having new people come in to learn new jobs while interacting with others, is a good way to increase overall military preparedness.
Frequent Moves are Common for Military Families
The use of the word “permanent” is a misnomer in a PCS. The move is usually only temporarily permanent as most assignments are for a maximum of two years. In some cases, the service member may get a particular assignment extended to stay longer in a certain place. For many though, once an assignment is over, there is another move to another new place.
It is not uncommon for military families to move six to nine times during the period when children are in school. This is three times more than average non-military families experience. Ask any military kid and most will tell you that they went to a different school every year during their childhood when a parent(s) was in the military.
Adults and their children respond to these moves in different ways. Some adults join the military because it is exciting to think about living in different places and different countries. No one really wants to live in Afghanistan; however, living on a U. S. military base in Europe or in Asia can be very interesting. Adults worry more about the logistics of getting themselves, their family, and their things to the new location. The also think about taking care of what is needed to leave the old location behind or to maintain two different locations at the same time.
Helping Children Get Used to the Idea of Moving
Children, on the other hand, have very different concerns. They worry about leaving their friends behind, changing schools, and having to make new friends in a strange, unfamiliar location. Younger children suffer less than tweens (age 8 to 12) and less than teens do.
Children under the age of eight are likely to think of the move as a great adventure, especially if it is explained to them that way by their parents. A fun way to introduce the concept of moving to a new place for younger kids is to go online and capture some interesting photos that look fun and nice about the new location. Show the kids the photos and make plans to go together to those places at the new location in the future.
Before the move, you can incorporate something representative about the new place into the daily life of the kids. For example, if the move is overseas to Germany, you might cook some bratwurst (large German sausage) to let the kids compare them to American hot dogs. Every place has some redeeming qualities. Even moving to the west coast from the east coast can be thought of as a wild west adventure. In that case, you could buy them a cowboy hat for a move to the desert area location of a military base in the west.
When packing for the move, make sure to pack a box of favorite things for each child. Get them to help you select the items to include. Mark the boxes, “Open Me First.” Upon arrival, make the first thing that the kids can do is to open their box in their new room. This feels a bit like Christmas and younger children really enjoy this.
The Trouble with Moving Tweens and Teens
As children get older, moving can be very traumatic. Tweens are at an age when they are trying to find themselves. Going through puberty makes them have significant physical and emotional changes. They are no longer a child but not yet an adult.
Moving during this time adds to the complexities in this process. Rebellion against parents, as part of their effort to discover who they are, is very common. A move may be considered to be something forced on them by their parents. This might cause a major resentment to form. The best recommendation is to talk this over with your children. Let them express their feelings without being judged and deeply listen to what they have to say.
Challenges in life can be helpful. Getting used to meeting new people and interacting with them in a positive way is a very good life skill to learn. Many military children get a benefit from this experience and go on to become “natural” leaders.
If parents are already having trouble communicating with their children at this age, then moving can easily increase this problem. Arriving at the new place and going to a new school as the “new kid” may attract the attention of bullies, just because the child is new to the area.
Schools on military bases in foreign countries are usually restricted to military children. Children mixed with children of other military families have less of this problem. However, in the United States, most military children go to regular public schools.
Acting out may be extreme in some cases. Child psychologists recommend seeking professional help at the first signs of serious troubles. These signs include a child that becomes sullen and despondent. They may secretly be having suicidal thoughts and parents have to guess that this may be happening.
Any abrupt, significant changes in moods, sleep or eating patterns, and activities (or lack thereof) can be signs of these troubles. Err on the side of caution by seeking professional help. The military provides these counseling services to its members and their dependents (children) for free.
Making a Teen Change High Schools
If at all possible, try to keep your child in the same high school for the full term. Different schools have different learning curriculum. Transferring students may find themselves behind or ahead of the students in the new school. They may have trouble adapting to a new environment.
Many military families choose to maintain two residences for this reason. One parent, who is not in the military, stays with the child who is in high school and perhaps with the other children as a well. This is not easy to do; however, the results are usually better than making a child change high schools in the middle of the four-year term.
High schools have a serious pecking order and rigid peer group affiliations. All 9th graders go through a kind of a hell finding their way through this dynamic while doing their best to fit in. If you need a refresher of just how bad this can be, watch the comedy movie “Mean Girls.” That movie is so funny because it is so painfully true that high school cliques form amongst teen children with serious intensity.
An Open And Honest Transition
As a military family, one or more of you signed up for military duty to be in service to your country. Your children did not sign up for this. However, you can make any necessary moves less traumatic by being open, honest, and listening to your children carefully. Then, like all of life’s adventures, make the most out of it as best as you can.
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