How to Talk to Military Kids about Common Stressors and Concerns

This podcast will focus on common stressors that military families—and, in particular, military kids, must cope with because they are in military families. From frequent moving to deployment, injuries and even death of a loved one, military kids must endure a great deal of anxiety and change. How can we talk to military kids about their fears, concerns and feelings? Dr. Julie Kinn, who works with the Department of Defense and the Defense Health Agency, discusses what our military kids need in terms of support as well as how technology can help them feel like they are part of a community that can provide what they need through the uncertain times.

Special guest: Dr. Julie Kinn

Military families face many unique challenges- from long family separations and shifted responsibilities in the household to frequent moving, injuries and sadly, sometimes, grief and loss. That means that being a child in a military family means a great deal of adjustment to frequent change as well as a host of undulating emotions that come from deployment, reunions, the unknowns and the new normal. How do we talk to military kids about the unique challenges that they face? And how do we answer the questions from kids who are not military families about how to support and understand their military friends who may not always be on sure footing.

Dr. Julie Kinn is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 15 years of experience researching and implementing health technology. At the Department of Defense and the Defense Health Agency, Kinn oversees the development and implementation of health technology for the military and veteran communities. She also initiated the Military Health Podcast program and produces/hosts three Department of defense OD podcasts: “A Better Night’s Sleep”, “The Military Meditation Coach”, and “Next Generation Behavioral Health”. Dr. Kinn, through the Department Of Defense, is responsible for two mobile apps with Sesame Street– Sesame Street’s Big Moving Adventure and Breathe, Think, Do.  Big Moving Adventure was made to help kids cope with moving in the general sense, but was made specifically to help the children of military families who have to move constantly. Dr. Kinn’s overall mission is to promote behavioral health for veterans and their families which includes promoting behavioral health in their communities as well.  

The podcast provides:

  • How technology can help military families
  • The stressors of military families
  • How we can help military children with moving and relocating
  • Helping kids prepare for homecomings
  • How to talk about injuries
  • How to cope with grief
  • How civilians can be supportive of military families

Important Messages:

  • Stressors—3 main findings: Moving, anxiety and a lack of community
  • When military kids move- sometimes they find that the other kids and teachers don’t understand what it’s like to be a military kid.
  • For any kid, moving at any age is difficult even if it’s fun and exciting. Moving means leaving your friends, teachers, grocery store, the favorite park. It’s not only the grief of losing what you know but also the anxiety of what comes next.
  • Kids can be very creative- but that also means that it can lead to worst case scenarios—with moving.
  • Sometimes military kids can move every 3 years. They were just getting settled in- and now it’s time to move again. Found their squad, in their comfort zone.
  • Questions that come up with moves: Will they understand what it’s like to be a military kid? Will they ask me awkward questions about my mom/dad? For example, “has your mom/dad ever killed anyone?”
  • Military kids- very resilient. They know that it’s for the greater good. Identify the benefits of moving.
  • Tip: when helping a new military child acclimate to a new location, don’t overwhelm. Not too many new things at once.
  • Tip: Help military kids find something to do in addition to school that helps to integrate them. Band, choir, sports, religious activities, dungeons and dragons, reading comics with others, art. Find that class. Tap into that peer group so they can feel like they belong. One group that helps you feel like you are on solid ground so you feel strong enough to reach out to others.
  • Important to know– Not every deployment is to a warzone. Could be to a training. Could be to assist another military around the world. Need to understand what deployment means—and that there are many different ways that people serve.
  • We need to help support our military kids during deployment and helping to support the caregiver who stays here.
  • Fill a jar with candy—eat a piece of candy or a jelly bean for each day the parent is gone. Acknowledges absence.
  • Anxiety- when dealing with deployment. Diaphragmatic breathing- important for life. Slow down. Breathe- think- do app with Sesame Street. Helps child to train a monster. Normal to have these feelings. Grown ups helping the kids with the app- also learning.
  • App: Big Moving Adventure- helps kids prepare for the move. Logical steps. But realistic expectations.
  • Be honest with our military kids- acknowledge the pain while also helping them get connected and prepare for the next thing.
  • Virtual Hope Box: Collects memories.
  • Need reasonable expectations when there is a homecoming. We may want the beautiful homecoming movie and fly into each other’s arms—but it doesn’t always work like that. Plan out the first few days with low expectations. Everyone can pick one thing for the person who just came home.
  • Pick ONE thing during a homecoming. Everyone’s needs represented.
  • Tell the truth- in age-appropriate terms- so they know what’s happening and don’t make up the worst-case scenarios.
  • Our military kids are resilient but also want to be part of the solution. Want to be helpful. They want to be part of the mission.
  • Chronic pain. Help a child understand that there might be a flair up- come up with ways for kids to be helpful. Manage pain- help parent to track the pain threshold so that it becomes too much, they can stop the activity. (1) Indicating that there might be a flair up; (2) The child has a role, (3) The parent and the child can breathe together
  • We don’t want to burden the child- but want to give them an active role when they want one.
  • Death and dying: Everyone experiences this grieve or loss differently. Everyone dealing with this- the other parent, the grandparents, the children, the team. We need to help kids manage expectations. Talk about what they need to know but not every single detail but not the aspects that might cause additional nightmares or trauma. “Our kids are aware of these risks. It’s not a completely unfamiliar topic. I think they think about it quite a bit. But that doesn’t make it easy. In fact, no matter how much worry we borrow when a bad thing happens, we still experience sadness.”
  • There’s a lot of ways to grieve- and different things will be comforting to different kids. Faith community?
  • Kids demonstrate emotion in different ways. Some think; “I have to cry to show I’m sad.” Alternatively, some think: “I can’t cry so I can show I’m strong.” We have to help kids understanding- there is no one right way to feel, not one right way to show how they feel, and that feelings can change across time.
  • A year down the road, two year, three years, that grief is still there as they experience new milestones. A graduation. Even if it’s a few years after the death, a very happy occasion can bring up those sad emotions; “I wish Mom/Dad were here.”
  • There are no one set of correct words.
  • Humor is important- talking about a time that everyone laughed together—can make everyone feel happy. Relive them together. Free, cheap and easy way to raise everyone’s mood.

Notable Quotables:

  • “Moving is part of military life—and it’s always tough on military kids.” 
  • “There’s always a sense of worry and anxiety that goes along with our military kids.”
  • “Moving is stressful for kids. For some military service members, they need to have a permanent change of station, up to every 3 years. That means for some of our military kids—they’ve just got settle in to their previous location—they’ve finally settle in, made friends, found their comfort zone and found their squad. Now, they have to move again.”
  • “No matter how resilient a child is, moving is still difficult.”
  • “When it comes to military kids, not everyone copes the same way. Some people wear their emotions on their sleeves, while others don’t. Some people might want a parade and others just want to blend in. Our military kids are not uniformly the same level of extraversion or introversion. Just like any kid, they’ll have their own thing.”
  • Having just a couple social connections, helps military kids gain social capital. Once they feel that they have a few people they can depend on, it gives them strength. It’s like planting your feet in the ground and helping you reach out a little more.
  • “For our military kids, it’s tough to have Mom or Dad away. We need them to know that it’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to think about it.”
  • “When our kids are moving, we don’t want to avoid acknowledging the loss of what our kids are experiencing in an effort to make them feel better in the moment.”
  • “Having reasonable expectations is a good tip for any relationship.”
  • “Our kids are pretty good at detecting shenanigans. They know when we’re not telling the truth. And—they want to know the real story. They are also creative and that creativity can lead to thinking about the worst-case scenarios. So sometimes when we hide things or we use euphemisms, we make things worse. We want to maintain trust. We want them to believe us and not make up their own story of what they think is happening- which is usually worse than what’s really happening.”
  • “When a parent in the military gets injured: “Find a way for the child to help. Kids don’t like standing by helplessly. Our military kids are incredibly resilient but they also want to be part of the mission. That mission might be—help mom get better. Give them an active role. Nobody wants to be helpless.”
  • “When a parent is having trouble with chronic pain, we don’t want our kids to feel that they are responsible for our health. But it’s great, when our children are in the mood to help, to give them a way to help us in the moment so that they can feel that they are part of a positive change rather than a helpless bystander.
  • “With any child, whether military or civilian, helping them process their grief in multiple ways is important because there’s not just one way to feel sadness. There’s not one way to feel the devastation of losing a parent.”
  • “Losing somebody we love is a loss we feel our whole lives.”
  • “Reliving a time when the family laughed together is a free, cheap and easy way to raise everyone’s mood.”


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