It Takes an Army Village to Support Military Kids

By Kim Ferraro, Directorate of Prevention, Resilience and ReadinessOctober 23, 2023

It Takes an Army Village to Support Military Kids
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Growing up in a military Family is exciting: living in different parts of the country and exotic locales around the globe, meeting people of diverse backgrounds, seeing your parents doing a heroic job. But it has significant drawbacks, too: moving frequently, being in a regular cycle of making friends and then separating from them, and losing access to certain freedoms of the ordinary world. That’s why it is paramount that kids of all ages get the social and emotional support they need to thrive as they go through different life stages in the atypical environment of a military base.

Like all parents, service members struggle to find enough time to spend with their kids while working in demanding careers, says Kristy Trahan, a program analyst for the Army’s Child, Youth and School (CYS) Services. But they have the added burden of long deployments away from their children, who worry about them suffering physical harm or dying in the line of duty. To make parenting easier for Soldiers, the Army offers wide-ranging resources, Trahan says. She cites CYS offerings that keep kids engaged, such as free youth centers, with features including a technology lab and homework assistance, and programs centered on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), leadership, arts and culture, and health. “Our older students have peer-support groups in schools with highly connected military student populations [and] youth centers on installations. For our youngest students, Sesame Street has excellent resources to support Families who may have a member raising their child while they’re deployed. Those resources include separation, staying connected while apart and reconnecting upon return.”

Parents can make the transition to new surroundings easier—and even something for kids to be enthusiastic about—by exploring neighborhoods near the base with them, suggests Patricia Ewen, a school support specialist with the Department of the Army. “Each community has something unique to offer—fresh peaches in Georgia, surfing lessons in Hawaii, Christmas markets in Germany, languages, architecture, music, food, historical and cultural sites. It’s important that militaryconnected children see themselves as children first, living in a military-connected Family where their parent happens to be a Soldier and they relocate. From there, children learn they’re part of a family, a bigger family and a community.”

Xavier Branch, 18, a student at the Fort Campbell Bastogne Teen Center, in Kentucky, has clearly flourished in the demanding Army-base atmosphere, having earned the title of Midwest Military Youth of the Year in the Boys & Girls Club of America’s regional competition. Branch, who first moved to Fort Campbell at age 6 and returned four years ago, also spent two years at Kadena Air Base, in Japan.

Among the rewards of military life he mentions is the diversity of people and cultures. “My time at Kadena exposed me to a new world,” he says— recalling jaunts to cities around Japan, France, Singapore, China and Puerto Rico¬—“while my time at Fort Campbell helped me learn the importance of community, especially my time at Taylor Youth Center.” But he admits that getting used to a different language and culture is tough, remembering his introduction to Japan: “Experiencing new foods and learning new cultural expectations required some time.” As a result, he tries to be a friendly guide to kids who join the culture of Fort Campbell. “I am committed to helping youth feel at home at Taylor Youth Center. I encourage them to be themselves. The center is a no-judgment zone that gave me a feeling of freedom, which I now promote and share with prospective members.” Branch is also exuberant about another lifeline that he readily throws out to newbies: Homework Club. “It kept me focused academically and provided me with an opportunity to mentor younger members who needed to sharpen their focus in a relaxing, fun and welcoming environment.”

Despite plentiful avenues of support, some kids still have trouble adjusting to the turbulence of military-Family life. Lt. Col. Melissa Boyd, a clinical psychologist at the Defense Centers for Public Health-Aberdeen, says: “Understanding emotions plays a major part in a child’s ability to cope and regulate stressors. Because military children often experience unique stressors, recognizing the effects of stress can be challenging and can subsequently impact asking a parent for help with managing what they are experiencing.” Boyd points to signs of distress parents should watch for, such as sudden changes in behavior, eating habits and sleeping patterns; physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches; and a drop in grades.

Trahan advises: “Carve out space and time to connect with your teen. During a PCS move, it can get hectic. Take time to check in with your teen within a few days of arrival, again at about a week or two, and again at a month. Listen for signs of improvement or where they may be struggling to engage. This is where a parent can help open doors and make others—teachers, counselors—aware of a need to support.”

As Branch notes, “Moving is one of the hardest things to deal with. Even when a move is expected, it is still a challenge for military youth.” His advice? View each new place as an opportunity to acquire more friends, unique experiences and life skills—wise words we should all heed.