Military families have a unique connection to war, regardless of when or where it occurs.
For military children – who know that their parents regularly train, prepare, and deploy for military missions as part of their job – current events can cause stress and anxiety. Streams of media images and reports about troubling news events can be outright scary.
Talking to kids openly and honestly about the events they see and hear about can help validate their feelings and make them feel reassured that they are safe and loved, said Air Force Col. (Dr.) Eric Flake, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Washington.
During these conversations, he recommends parents:
- Keep it simple and honest
- Validate their kids' feelings
- Express feelings about how the family might be impacted by what's going on
- Highlight the values and strengths that people demonstrate during hard times
Flake highlighted the importance of military parents explaining to their children that the reason for their military service is to protect children and make them feel safe.
"Everyone, but especially children, like to feel safe and secure," he said.
"Reassurance is key."
An important part of that is reassuring children that feelings of anxiety are normal, the behavioral specialist said. Parents can help externalize or label feelings and remind children that adults get anxious, too. Children need to understand that it's OK to feel scared or anxious.
"It's a healthy response, and we all feel it," said Flake. "Having an emotional response and being sensitive to the suffering of others is healthy and should be supported, not turned off."
It also helps to provide children with the coping skills needed to "ride through" times when anxiety is particularly difficult to manage, he added.
"Do healthy things to help bring down the anxiety levels, like eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep," he added.
He recommends the following resources to ease kids' anxiety:
- Eat a meal together without distractions
- Go on walks together and talk about things that interest the child
- Talk about what is going at the level that the child understands
- Develop a personal growth mindset and teach children about this concept
Military children face unique anxieties, even in the best of times, for example that their parents will be leaving for a deployment, or that their family will be moving, said Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Kara Garcia, a staff pediatrician at the 96th Medical Group in Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
"Leaving friends, schools, familiar parks, churches, and changing routines can be very disorienting for children," she said.
"It's important as a parent to talk about the certainties and constants: that they are loved, that the adults around them are happy and healthy, that things will turn out OK in the end."
But if a parent feels that their child is excessively anxious, Flake recommends they make an appointment with their primary physician.
"There is also 24/7 help anywhere in the world to address anxiety concerns via Military OneSource, including virtual counseling," he said.
For more information, talk to your health care provider, your local Military & Family Life Counseling Program, or school counselor.