Family raking autumn leaves.

Parents, Help Your Kids Thrive

In order to build strong and successful family relationships, it’s important to understand your children’s unique challenges, watch out for signs they’re struggling, and gather tips and resources to help them thrive.

Today more than 18 million Veterans are living in the United States, representing about 6% of our country’s adult population. Among all of these Veterans are generations of children who have witnessed the physical and emotional effects of war. Growing up as children of military members and Veterans, they’ve experienced unique challenges, complex feelings and additional responsibilities.

While we celebrate their determination, pride and resilience, it’s also important to acknowledge their struggles and sacrifice. During a parent’s military career, children may experience numerous relocations, the loss of friends and community, added responsibility at home and worry about a parent’s safety. After Service, children may struggle to reconnect with a parent, work through changes to the family structure and learn to cope with a parent’s visible or invisible wounds.

In order to build strong and successful family relationships, it’s important to understand your children’s unique challenges, watch out for signs they’re struggling, and gather tips and resources to help them thrive.

Unique Challenges Facing Children of Veterans

As a military family, you faced many unique challenges. From relocations to deployments, your Service played a big role in shaping your family’s life. Now as a Veteran, you and your children may be experiencing different challenges, including:

  • Adjusting to a new community, school and support network
  • Handling more responsibility at home
  • Navigating a different family structure now that the Veteran parent is out of the military
  • Rebuilding relationships that changed while the Veteran parent was serving or deployed
  • Dealing with changes to the Veteran parent (either in personality, mental or emotional health, physical changes or limitations, etc.)

Signs That Your Children Might Be StrugglingMother talking to daughter as she gets on the school bus.

With these unique challenges, your children may find it difficult to handle their emotions or manage the stress they’re feeling. Some children may be more prone to outbursts and defiance, while others may become more withdrawn and isolated.

The list below shares some common signs that may suggest your children are struggling with difficult emotions. Consider their typical mood and behavior, as well as their age, when you’re looking for signs.

  • Appetite changes
  • Sleep changes (nightmares, sleeping too much or too little)
  • Irritability, anger or defiance
  • Fatigue, lack of motivation
  • Withdrawal and avoidance
  • Reluctance to be left alone, fear of separation
  • Regression with certain behaviors (bed-wetting, thumb sucking, trouble falling asleep)
  • Frequent headaches and stomachaches
  • Difficulty in school or with friends
  • Constant worry, hypersensitivity
  • Risky or destructive behavior
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating

You know your children best. Not all of these symptoms mean they’re struggling. For example, a teenager may just be trying out newly defiant behavior as a way to test boundaries. A toddler may struggle to sleep through the night after giving up a daytime nap. Use these signs as a guide and keep track of changes you notice. You can also talk to other important people in your children’s lives such as teachers, coaches, health care providers or grandparents to see if they’ve noticed anything worrisome.

Tips to Help Your Children ThriveDaughters listening to father while sitting on sofa at home.

Whether you think your children are struggling or not, it’s helpful to explore tips and resources that can help them thrive. Check out these tips and take away what works best for your family.

  • Celebrate their strengths. Children within military and Veteran families have a unique set of skills that should be celebrated. Applaud their confidence and ability to adapt to new situations. Highlight their pride and service to their country. Celebrate their understanding of current events, different cultures and other parts of the world. Your children may not even realize how much they’ve changed or grown as a result of your Service.
  • Create opportunities to talk. Children of all ages may have a hard time starting serious conversations. Try to create opportunities for dialogue while doing typical activities. Check in while taking the dog for a walk or chat while you’re cooking a meal together. It may make it easier for your children to open up when the setting is relaxed.
  • Teach coping skills. Children don’t always know how to manage their stress, so it’s important to provide tools or skills that can help. Download a deep breathing app for them to use, try doing a short meditation session together or run through a few yoga poses as a family. Share openly what coping techniques work best for you.
  • Give yourself a break. Parenting is hard even on the best of days. Allow for mistakes and understand you’ll have ups and downs. If you react angrily or feel disconnected from your children, remember that every day is a new opportunity to seek help, make changes and try again.
  • Talk openly and honestly. Children are perceptive and often pick up on changes and tensions within the family. If they don’t get answers, they may create their own. For example, your children may think you don’t care about them if you don’t attend a big event, but maybe it’s that you aren’t comfortable in large crowds. Be open and talk honestly about the ways in which your military Service continues to impact you.
  • Explain hidden wounds. If you’re a Veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), depression or another condition that your children might not “see,” explain it in an age-appropriate way. Without an explanation, your children may blame you for yelling or being distant at times, but if you’re open about what you’re dealing with and working on, your children can be a part of your healing process.
  • Provide opportunities to connect with others. All of us do better when we have strong support networks around us. Ensure your children have people they can lean on, such as teachers, coaches and friends. If you’re new to your community, try to find ways to connect with others through group activities, online forums, meetups and more. Check out Blue Star Families for ways to get involved and meet other military and Veteran-connected families in your area.
  • Model good behavior. Children are always watching and learning from how we handle different situations. Model and share the healthy ways you’re learning to manage your emotions and stress and apologize if you’ve done something you aren’t proud of.
  • Create and follow routines. Structure and routine can help children deal with big changes. It’s helpful for them to know that even while things are changing, they can count on certain things to stay the same – even if it’s just what time you go to bed or what routine you follow when you get home from school.
  • Take care of yourselves. It’s easier to manage stress and get through difficult times when you’re healthy. Make sure you and your children are getting enough sleep, proper nutrition, physical activity and opportunities to work off stress. Check out these ideas for ways to move more as a family.
  • Get the support you deserve. You don’t have to figure everything out on your own. If you’re struggling with PTSD or feel like you and your family are being impacted by your Service, reach out for help. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has several mental health treatment options to help you and your family rebuild your relationships, including both individual and family counseling. Look through the resources listed below for additional ways to help your children thrive.

Resources For You and Your Children

Blue Star Families – This organization aims to strengthen military and Veteran families by connecting them to their local communities. Connect with fellow military and Veteran families and neighbors in your area, attend virtual or in-person events, find Veteran-friendly employment, plan outdoor excursions in your area, join an online community and more.

Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Hidden Helpers Program – Hidden Helpers are the children, youth and young adults who are impacted or involved in the mental, emotional or physical care of a wounded, ill or aging Service member or Veteran. The Elizabeth Dole Foundation is collaborating with nonprofit, corporate and government organizations to make a positive impact on youth caregivers and their families. Check out several resources for parents, including caregiver support communities, respite care and more.

Sesame Street for Military Families – This site offers many resources for parents and children – from online games to play, printable worksheets and coloring pages, mobile apps and much more. You can find helpful tips and videos on difficult topics such as deployment, long-term caregiving, injuries, grief and much more.

PTSD: The National Center for PTSD – The center has several resources designed for families who are dealing with a loved one’s PTSD. Learn more about the effects of PTSD on the family, strategies to cope and resources that can help.

The Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress – This site has several informative and helpful fact sheets on different topics related to children and families, including how children are impacted by TBI, combat injury, invisible injuries like PTSD and more.

Military OneSource Children, Youth and Teens Resources – Military OneSource has compiled several helpful resources for military-connected youth and their parents. Find webinars on parenting strategies, information on discipline strategies and much more. Military OneSource also offers a Military Parent Resource Center full of information Veteran parents may find helpful as well, including caring for yourself during times of stress, helping teens manage relationships, boosting your family’s resilience and more.

Make the Connection – This site is full of stories and videos from Veterans just like you who are working on building, rebuilding and strengthening their family relationships.

Parenting takes a lot of work. Take charge of your relationships and use the tips and resources available to help your children thrive!

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