Remembering the Needs of Military Families During the 4th of July

Jul 2, 2020

Although PCS season can be stressful, professionals supporting military families can be a positive force in reframing and supporting parents through this experience. Yes, a PCS big change. But with change comes growth, and that in itself is cause for celebration.

By Jennifer Novak

Happy Independence Day! The 4th of July is a time of celebrating in the United States, and in most years, it includes celebrations, barbecues, and fun times with loved ones (although we know for many families that these events have been curtailed by COVID-19). However, this mid-summer celebration is also a reminder of an event that many military families experience every two to three years - PCS.

What is a PCS?

A PCS – or Permanent Change of Station – is when a military family relocates from one installation to another. These moves can happen at any time during the year, but many military families find that these moves are often associated with the summer months. This is helpful for those with school-aged children who are able to avoid changes of schools during an academic year, but they also impact those with younger babies and toddlers in the home.

What changes are caused by a PCS?

Consider the last time you had to relocate – whether this was to a new home in the same city or to a different state altogether. There’s planning, saving, out-of-pocket expenses, finding a new place to live, sorting through and packing personal belongings, and then physically relocating and resettling. For military families, a PCS is part of the military lifestyle, but it doesn’t make it any less challenging. The same stressors faced by civilians are also felt by the military community – both adults and children alike.

How can we support military families?

If you are a professional who works with military families (or a military family member yourself), there are plenty of resources available to help plan the logistics of a PCS. But just as important as moving through a to-do list is also keeping the parent’s and child’s well-being in mind. Consider the following when a family has an upcoming PCS:

Remember to attend to parental self-care throughout the process. A PCS is stressful, no matter how well planned. Unexpected issues will come up, and the pressure to get things done quickly and correctly can take a toll on how parents are doing. Encourage parents to include time for self-care throughout the move and use mindfulness strategies to hold awareness of how they are feeling and doing. Remember – the better parents are, the better they can be for their children.

Remember that children, even the smallest babies, are impacted by big changes. Even though they may not be able to tell us with their words, babies and toddlers also feel the stress in the home. Ask parents to pay attention to their child’s non-verbal cues and behaviors for insights into how they are coping. Have they noticed that they are having a harder time with managing their feelings, or are regressing in their sleep, eating, and toileting habits? These are perfectly normal reactions to stress and might mean that their child needs something from them – like attention or assurance – to help them feel safe and secure during this time of change.

Use developmentally appropriate language to talk to children about what to expect. Some families may think that their child is too young to understand what is happening and not bring them into the conversation about an upcoming PCS. But for children to feel okay about big changes, it’s helpful to clue them in on what to expect. Younger babies and toddlers can be told what’s happening using simple language – “Mommy has a new job to do in California. We’re going to start putting away some of our things so that when we get there, they will be waiting for us in boxes at a new house.” For older toddlers, parents can share additional details – that they will be attending a new childcare center and meeting new friends; what the travel to the new location will be like; what their new house will look like and what things there will be to do at the new duty station. Talk to families about researching their new location in advance so that they can share information with their young child. Encourage them to plan ahead – for example, seeing what childcare options are available and getting on registration waitlists before they move.

Plan for strategies to use on the road and for getting adjusted to the new location. Before leaving the current duty station, help families think about what the travel arrangements will be and how they can support their little ones during a long drive or flight. Then, share strategies they can try to help get adjusted when they arrive to their new location. Specific strategies to share can be found here.

Create a good-bye ritual. Just like any other loss, leaving a home and prior duty station can cause a grief response in some young children. *By telling children early that a PCS will happen, parents can do activities with them that can help make this transition easier. Encourage parents to make time to say good-byes to friends and playmates before they leave, take pictures of the house they are moving away from, and make final visits to places their child enjoyed going to (if possible). This sense of closure not only helps children welcome the next adventure for their family, but also helps create positive memories and coping mechanisms that can help them not just during the current PCS, but ones that will come as they grow up.

Make a plan for the new location. Help parents think about how to get connected at their new installation. This includes getting out and exploring the community, joining play groups, signing their children up for recreational activities. It also includes ideas for meeting neighbors and creating new social connections. By having a plan, parents can feel more in control about what can feel very chaotic. Make sure parents know where they can go to get needed support with these transitions at their new installation. Military OneSource is always available for parents to call to find out where their New Parent Support Program, churches, recreation programs, and Military Family Life Counselors can be found.

Although PCS season can be stressful, professionals supporting military families can be a positive force in reframing and supporting parents through this experience. Yes, a PCS big change. But with change comes growth, and that in itself is cause for celebration.