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How to Help Military Children Reconnect After Two Years of the Pandemic

Image of Airman 1st Class Rocio Romo, Space Launch Delta 30 public affairs specialist, and her son pose for a photo at Cocheo Park on Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, March 25, 2022. During the month of April, we celebrate Month of the Military Child to highlight the sacrifices military children make on the home front while their parents serve the United States. (Photo: Airman Kadielle Shaw, Space Launch Delta 30 Public Affairs). Airman 1st Class Rocio Romo, Space Launch Delta 30 public affairs specialist, and her son pose for a photo at Cocheo Park on Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, March 25, 2022. During the month of April, we celebrate Month of the Military Child to highlight the sacrifices military children make on the home front while their parents serve the United States. (Photo: Airman Kadielle Shaw, Space Launch Delta 30 Public Affairs)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been extraordinarily challenging for even the most resilient kids. The lockdowns and countless precautions have resulted in isolation and a loss of normal opportunities for children to just be children. 

What can parents and the broader military community do to restore a sense of normality? How can we help these kids to catch up in school, develop age-appropriate behaviors and maintain good mental health? 

There’s no easy answer. 

“It depends, because it’s a very personalized experience,” said Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Bonnie Jordan, a child development expert stationed at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. 

The social, emotional and academic issues that children may face can vary a lot with age. Nevertheless, all children – young, tween, adolescent – could be at risk. 

“There is a developmental gap from being out of the school environment,” Jordan said. 

“Educators around the country are seeing dramatic upticks in disciplinary problems,” she said. These may be minor, such as not following directions from the teacher, or major, such as physical fights or social media bullying. 

“It’s related to the loss of social experience. Children have spent two years trying to navigate the social experience, but that’s been replaced with difficult-to-wrangle social media. Social media is what they think is normal,” Jordan said. 

“They have to learn how to interact with each other in person.” 

At the same time, “many are behind academically,” she said. 

In some families where parents are deployed or both work outside the home, “teenagers or younger kids are caring for their siblings. Older children are caretakers when they are supposed to be doing online learning. That can be a big stress for our youth.” Jordan said. 

Signs of Trouble 

Jordan said there are three main signs of trouble parents should watch for. 

  • Mental or behavioral health concerns 
  • Problems reintegrating back into the school social setting 
  • Gaps in academic learning 

A first key question for parents is: Is your child showing signs of depression or anxiety? 

“Some early signs I see are irritability or anger,” Jordan said. For children, those can be real signs of depression or anxiety apart from more typical symptoms like changes in sleeping patterns, lack of appetite, and loss of desire to participate in activities they used to enjoy. 

 Second: “Is my child constantly not getting along with peers?” Jordan said. 

“Are they getting into fights that are physical or verbal? Are they lonely and not able to make social connections? This can impact mental health.” 

A third concern that parents should be looking for: “Did my child join their peers educationally or are they more behind than others?” Jordan said. 

Examples may include not being able to read at the appropriate grade level or having missed blocks of instruction that were available via virtual learning. 

Jordan pointed out that some children may not be good at virtual learning. They may not have had a parent available every day to walk them through the instructions. “It’s important to remember that children are returning to school with different academic strengths and needs.” 

Importantly, all three can interact or compound each other. Jordan went on to say: “Children who are depressed will struggle more academically and children who are falling behind or lonely, are at risk of depression.” 

Check-Ins  

Keeping children connected with others is essential, said Patti Johnson, a pediatric psychologist and doctorate who supports the Defense Health Agency’s Behavioral Health Clinical Management Team. 

“It is important that the adults in their lives – parents, teachers, medical professionals, coaches, clergy, and so on – stay connected to these kids and be aware of how they are coping,” Johnson said. 

“Adults should check-in with youth periodically, ask questions about how they are doing, give them space to respond or not, be aware that they may want or need to talk but aren’t sure how to approach topics, give them permission to reach out, and don’t try to ‘fix’ their problems but rather listen and acknowledge their loss, grief, emotions,” she suggested.  

There has been a “significant increase” in eating disorders in teens and young people, Jordan said.

“Suicidality is clearly on the rise in teens and ‘tweens but also in younger kids,” she added. 

Coping Strategies 

“The best thing to do to help children and adolescents is to increase opportunities for guided social activities,” Jordan said. 

On-post services often include youth centers, sports leagues, clubs, recreational activities, faith-based activities, classes, and Morale, Welfare and Recreation offerings, among others. 

“They are structured enough so children don’t have to rely on their social skills. It encourages our youth to be involved,” Jordan said.

She also suggested that parents can foster improved social skills by setting up “positive social interactions,” along the lines of play dates but tailored to different ages and interests.

Johnson offered a list of coping skills that appear to help children and teens:

  • Staying connected with friends and family
  • Spending time outdoors in nature
  • Exercising
  • Using calming strategies such as journaling, relaxation, deep breathing, meditation, and yoga
  • Engaging in enjoyable or meaningful activities as much as possible
  • Limiting screen time
  • Maintaining routines
  • Getting adequate sleep

Resources

There are numerous online resources geared specifically to helping military children and adolescents maintain their well-being. These include 

April is the Month of the Military Child. This year’s theme is “Brave Hearts, Resilient Souls.”

Thank You for Being a Military Kid

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