How to Help Your Military Child Process Difficult Feelings

Staff Sgt. Yinell Covington, and her daughter, Maya Rosario, pose for a picture at a school parade at the Joint Base Andrews Child Development Center. (U.S. Air Force/Rustie Kramer)
Staff Sgt. Yinell Covington, and her daughter, Maya Rosario, pose for a picture at a school parade at the Joint Base Andrews Child Development Center. (U.S. Air Force/Rustie Kramer)

Emotions can be scary. They are big and hard to control. Feelings pop up unexpectedly. Our children might not know how to handle their own feelings, or the emotions of others either.

Everyone is dealing with the difficulties of military life in their own way. It can be easy for kids to slip into one-upping their friends and classmates. It's up to us to teach our children how to relate and connect with their peers using empathy and kindness.

It's okay to feel sad or mad

The first step in teaching empathy is to validate your child's feelings. It can be hard to feel things, especially when those emotions are big or scary.

When your child is upset about anything, label the emotion: "You're feeling mad because your brother took your toy."

You can do this for bigger emotions, too: "I see you're having a hard time today and really holding your Daddy Doll. Are you feeling sad because Dad is gone?"

Give them permission and space to feel their emotions safely. A hug or a snuggle, if your child seems like they want or need it, can be good. Backing off or giving your child space could work, too. Just try to prevent destructive or violent behavior.

Give them outlets

When your child is struggling with big emotions and gets out of control, try to redirect those behaviors constructively. You could channel their emotions in many directions, based on their personality or energy in the moment. Children can find release in art, music, physical activity, or a change of scenery. Go out for a run around the block or invite your child to draw their feelings.

Put on music to match their mood and dance it out. You could let them voice their emotions by screaming into a pillow.

Everyone struggles

Sometimes, children can feel like they are alone in their feelings. Grab opportunities to connect their emotions to how other people are feeling. Making connections between your child's emotions and the experiences of others helps them to understand that everyone struggles.

You could use characters in a book. Talk about how the character is feeling and what they are doing to handle their emotions. Then turn the conversation back to your child: "When you are angry, what do you do? Do you do what Pete the Cat did?"

Another option is to connect your child's feelings to your own experiences: "I know you're feeling sad because we're moving. I'm feeling sad, too. I'll miss my friends and our neighborhood. What will you miss?"

You could also connect to a friend or family member: "John is moving away soon. Do you remember how you felt when we moved from our last house? What do you think we could do to help John?"

Be constructive

It can be easy to mope or be grouchy all day. Sometimes, you (and your child) just need a day to process. On the other hand, try to seek solutions and ways to work through emotions. Share what you do to help yourself in specific situations.

"When I feel sad that Daddy is deployed, I like to put on happy music and dance around the house. Moving in fun ways cheers me up!"

Then put the question to your child: "What do you think would cheer you up?"

Follow through and help your child with whatever (within reason) they think might resolve their emotions.

Expand their thinking to include others who are feeling big things or working through tough times. Ask your child to think of ways to help others. You could keep it close to home, like a deployed parent or a friend who is PCSing, or go bigger, like sending cards to children's hospitals. Letting your child help others can make their emotions and struggles more real.

Journal it out

Even with all the tools available, it can be hard for children to let off steam. Or it might be tough to remember what helped them through a rough patch in the past. Writing down what they are feeling or thinking can help children to process.

For very young children, parents might consider keeping a notebook or mental list of what has worked. Preschool-aged children could draw out their feelings. You could follow behind and write down their emotions or what the pictures mean for them.

Older children might like to have a private place to write about their life. Writing is so cathartic for so many people. Tweens and teens are just entering those often awkward and emotionally volatile years. Dealing with all of that, plus the stress of military life, might really get to them.

Give them a safe space to work through all of those feelings and problems. Try to give them privacy by not prying or peeking at their journal.

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