How to Make Military Family Moves Easier on Your Kids
Moves can be tough on kids. If you're uprooting them often, there are still ways you can help them build strong communities in their new hometowns.
Walking into Elizabeth's apartment, there are an array of boxes—some closed and labeled, others half full, more waiting to be filled—splayed across the living room. It's a busy day—heck, it's been a busy month—for the military wife and mom as she preps for their fifth move across the country in nearly as many years.
It's a common scene for military families: Pack your bags, move on or near a base, stay for a few years (if you're lucky), then pick up and move again. "It's never really been a problem before—I've gotten used to it over the last seven years," Elizabeth says of the constant get-up-and-go mentality.
But now that her five-year-old daughter, Kassidy, has started school, Elizabeth says she worries about how their constant moving is affecting her social development. "I know she won't necessarily remember living here, but this is the time she's learning how to forge relationships with people," she says. "I don't want to mess that up for the rest of her life."
It's a valid concern: So far, with each move, Elizabeth has noticed symptoms of regression—bed wetting, clinginess, and extreme shyness—for about a month before Kassidy adjusts to a new routine. "She's such an outgoing little girl, and when she makes friends, she loves them," Elizabeth says. "But each time we move, it takes a lot of work to open up and get her to say hello to someone new again."
Michelene Wasil, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego who specializes in military and family life, agrees that Elizabeth's concerns are legitimate. "You start to form friendships in this preschool age, and when you don't have a solid, consistent schedule, things can get a little mucked up," Wasil explains.
Zachary Porter, 30, is a prime example: Remembering at least nine moves between the ages of six and 17 due to his parent's dual-military career in the Army, the Kansas resident says the constant moving definitely impacted his ability to form deep, lasting relationships.
"Every time I had to relocate, I always felt like the outcast—not only at school, but also in the area. I never felt like I was actually home, and each move made it more difficult for me to feel accepted and that I belonged," he says. "I always had trouble making friends; never knowing when I would have to leave made me not want to get close to anyone."
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Maureen Forman, 42, agrees. After moving five times between 1974 and 1992 thanks to her parent's careers with the Air Force and Department of Defense (plus a year-long stint apart from dad while he was on assignment), the California resident says that, "generally people feel close to me and confide in me very quickly, [but] I feel less depth," Forman says. "I have a myriad of friendships, but very few that actually know the real me."
But just because you move your family around—be it from a military career or for another reason—it doesn't mean your child is doomed. Mark Marchand, 61, moved between Massachusetts, Georgia, Wyoming, and Morocco as a child, and has only positive things to say about his coming-of-age experiences. "I simply developed an appreciation, early in life, for how amazingly different everyone is, but at the same time we had so much in common," the New York resident says. "It was difficult to keep moving just as friendships began to blossom, but my three brothers and I learned how to form friendships fast since we moved so much."
He also says it affected his adulthood in a positive way. "The experience instilled in me a wanderlust for seeing different parts of the world," Marchand adds. "I had to put that on hold [at one point], but once our boys were out of college, my wife and I began traveling to Italy, Paris, England, Alaska, and other places."
As you can imagine, parenting plays a big role in how your child comes to accept a constantly changing address. Take Kassidy, for example. "It's important for her to understand that they're not moving her around just because [they can], but rather because it's a big, important part of daddy's job."
Experts say there are steps you can take, as the parent, to help your child put his or her best foot forward through each move. Here, seven ideas worth trying.
Look into programs that can help. "The military is not all that clear at handing you [resources], and if they do it's in a bit of a rush and the family is just thinking about moving," says Wasil. Elizabeth agrees, noting that she's never received information about services that could help Kassidy adjust better. Be sure to take charge on research, as Wasil notes there are various resources out there that can help, including Military OneSource and Operation We Are Here.
Set up a buddy system. Before your child's first day in a new school, speak to the administration about a tour, or if there is a chance for your child to meet kids in her class. "In San Diego, we have county services that help military families through this rough time," Wasil said. They'll set up junior students that welcome all the new students, as a research project found that kids who are welcomed and paired with other kids who were already here did better academically because they were able to connect socially."
Let your child be sad. As much as you may want to angle your upcoming move as a positive, exciting adventure (something that Wasil encourages), be sure to give your kids time to be sad about moving too, says Wasil. Allowing that transition period lets them know that they don't have to bottle anything up or pretend that everything is fine and they're used to moving. "Even if they move a lot, it can still sting whenever the time comes to move again," Wasil explains. "Let them know it's okay to cry and it's okay to be sad, but that you're also going to make new friends in this brand new, exciting place."
Give them something to look forward to. "My father would try to have new versions of favorite toys waiting for us when we arrived at our new homes," Marchand remembers. "I loved robots, and I loved having a new robot toy waiting for me when I arrived."
That's a smart idea, says Wasil, as again, it reinforces the notion that there are fun, exciting adventures up ahead. Other ideas: Set up a "see the town" tour once you arrive, or go see a movie they've been talking about.
Encourage socialization. When you're navigating a new place, it can be tough to make friends, regardless of whether you're a child or adult. But Wasil says it's best to put yourself out there as soon as possible to help your kid break through. "Make sure that they get a social connection everywhere they go," she encourages. "Whether that's through mom and me groups or a school liaison officer (which are in every heavy military area), I've noticed that parents who take the more proactive approach have more resilient children that are able to move a lot more easily."
Porter says that a parental push helped him with each move. "My parents would put me in extracurricular activities, encouraging me to try new things and meet new people," he remembers. "The one thing that really helped was when I joined the Boys and Girls Club. It allowed me to find people I connected with and gave me a bit of a social life."
Practice, practice, practice. "One of the most important things [your child] can do is learn how to make new friendships, and teaching them to be outgoing and how to introduce themselves, that's stuff mom and dad can totally help with," says Wasil. Next time you're at the playground and see other families, walk up to your child and say, "Hey Kassidy, let's go over there and introduce ourselves." Doing so makes mom or dad the bridge for that initial contact, which can tamper any fear or shyness. "You can walk over to the other kids and say, 'Hi, this is my daughter Kassidy, she would like to meet you guys and play,'" says Wasil. "Then go and do the same to the other parents, so you're modeling that behavior."
Consider counseling. Adjustment counseling is often offered to military families when there's a big event happening, like a death, move, or divorce, says Wasil. It lasts for up to three months post-event, as that's when children are most likely to experience regression, heightened anxiety, and other symptoms. If your kid is in high school or older, you can also simply ask if the school counselor can check in on them from time to time, in case they need to talk to someone who's not their parent. (Though Wasil says grade school students should still talk to a counselor, as they may not fully know how to process what they're feeling yet.)