Resilience, Mental Health and Education as Military Children Head to School in the Midst of COVID-19

By Danielle DeSimone and Sandi Gohn

The life of a military child is one of constant change. A military childhood means that you are uprooted, sometimes with very little warning, and moved across the country – or even the world – every two to three years. It’s a life of always being the new kid, always finding your way through a new school, always feeling like you don’t belong. It is a childhood where nothing – not the four walls of your house, the location of your classroom or the presence of your military parent – is guaranteed.

But resiliency is often synonymous with being a military child, and from a young age, American military kids quickly learn how to persevere through even the most challenging of situations. However, they still need our support, especially when tackling this year’s COVID-19 pandemic and a return to an uncertain school situation.

What Does Life as a Military Child Today Look Like?

According to the Department of Defense (DoD), 37.3% of active duty service members are parents to the roughly 1 million military children living around the world. Although their parents are the ones who wear the uniform, military children, who account for over half of the active-duty U.S. military family community, serve and sacrifice in their own ways. From coping with a parent’s deployment, to living overseas in a foreign country, to having a digital-only connection to family members living far away, today’s military children must grapple with a unique set of challenges in addition to the typical stressors of being a kid.

Two military children hug their father as he returns home from a deployment. | Photo credit DVIDS/Petty Officer 2nd Class Tucker Yates

Every fall, one of the most common challenges facing many U.S. military children is starting at a new school after a summer of PCSing (i.e., moving) with their family to a new location. Military children typically move every two to four years (more than three times the national average), which means they are constantly having to make new friends, adapt to new environments and adjust to new schools.

Constant Moves and Starting Over at School Can Take a Toll on Military Children

When it comes to their education, only about 71,000 military children around the world attend one of the 161 DoD schools located around the world, which are run by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). This means that the majority of military children attend civilian schools, where the military-civilian divide can be especially apparent, or are home-schooled, where military children can sometimes feel isolated from their local communities.

On average, military kids will attend up to nine different schools before they graduate high school because of frequent relocations. Sometimes, these moves happen fast and unexpectedly, leaving little time for children to find closure, fully process what is happening or even just say goodbye to their friends. This constant change of schools, teachers, friends and learning environments can be a significant stressor for military children and their families, particularly when combined with other realities of military life and normal childhood worries.

Photo credit DVIDS/Staff Sgt. K. Tucker Owen

A father takes his son to school in Italy.

“Ending up at a school where the staff and administrators may have limited knowledge of military life can be difficult for military kids. Teachers may not understand that the military child in their class not only has to navigate the emotional ups and downs that come with a PCS, deployments and the overall uncertainty of military life, but also has a different learning foundation,” said USO Stewardship and Special Events Specialist, military spouse and mother Erin Gaul.

“My kids can tell you all about the California Gold Rush, but that doesn’t help out now that we’ve moved to Virginia. Most importantly, school counselors may not understand all the emotions that kids experience leading up to, during, and towards the end of a parent’s deployment.

According to a 2011 report, military children who have moved multiple times can have a hard time adapting to new school environments, particularly if their parent is deployed. Furthermore, this 2014 report found that “[military] children who experienced a geographic move in 2008 were significantly more likely to have a mental health visit [to the hospital] in 2009 … [and] the effect was more dramatic in adolescents, aged 12–17 years, than in younger children.”

Photo credit DVIDS/Kemberly Groue

Military children head to school in Mississippi in the fall of 2020.

Additionally, some of the logistics of consistently moving – like transferring school records, accounting for curriculum differences, settling into extracurriculars, etc., – can also cause tension at school and at home. For the majority military children who attend non-DoD schools in their civilian community, these types of issues can be even worse, as many civilian teachers, students and administrators may lack the understanding of military culture and lifestyle.

With Difficulties, Come Lessons in Resiliency and a Strong Sense of Community

However, other research and testimonials of now-adult military children say the constant moving and other aspects of military life can be a positive and formative experience.

According to one 2013 study, the repeated experience of moving and of having to adjust to a new normal can be beneficial to military children, particularly when it comes to developing coping skills. The study notes that “military life, along with its hardships, offers many sources for resilience — for example, a strong sense of belonging to a supportive community with a shared mission and values.”

Military children’s self-identification with the larger military community is often a source of pride and comfort that can help them make sense of difficult times, like moving frequently. One 2018 series of in-depth interviews with grown military children also agrees with this sentiment, noting that the adult military children they spoke with “primarily attributed their resiliency to the support of their family and to their sense of belonging or connectedness within the context of the military culture.”

Photo credit DVIDS/Pfc. Matthew Rabahy

A service member hugs his child.

“The lessons I learned from being a ‘Navy Brat’ have helped me throughout my entire life,” said Mike Case, USO senior digital archivist and the son of a Navy veteran. “We moved a lot, so always being the new kid in school taught me to roll with change, to be open to all kinds of people and ideas and to embrace the challenge of feeling a little out of your comfort zone.”

Case was also especially proud of being a member of the military community.

“I was so much of a military kid that when my father was getting ready to retire and I was told I would have to give up my military ID card, I was alarmed and asked my parents: ‘But how do civilians identify themselves? How will anyone know who I am?’”

Meanwhile, military kids who have spent large portions of their lives at duty stations overseas often earn the label of “third culture kids.” That is, children who grew up outside of their own immediate family’s culture. Children who have this experience of living abroad, which requires adjusting to a new way of life and language, often emerge with a broader world view and the ability to speak more than one language – qualities and skills that can come in handy in the future.

Although they might struggle with the transitions at first, ultimately, these experiences and challenges can help shape military children into resilient and skilled American adults.

During COVID-19, Things Are Even More Complicated

Although the long-term effects of military life may set military children up for success in the future, today, our nation’s military kids are faced with unprecedented challenges thanks to COVID-19.

Like their civilian peers, life as they knew it came to a screeching halt; schools were suddenly shut down, extracurricular activities were canceled and social distancing was enforced. However, unlike civilian children, military children also had to deal with the additional challenges of being a part of the military community during a global pandemic.

Over the past several months, many states activated their National Guard in response to the pandemic, with tens of thousands of Guard members sent to work at hospitals, COVID-19 testing sites, food banks and other critical locations in the fight against the virus.

Military kids who had been anxiously awaiting their military parent’s return from deployment had to wait even longer, with many deployments being extended due to COVID-19. This meant yet another birthday apart, family dinners with an empty seat at the table, or a big moment like graduation missed. Some service member parents even had to miss out on the births of their own children.

Meanwhile, life at home didn’t stop for military families with a deployed service member stuck overseas. Instead, thanks to pandemic-related school and office closures, many military spouses, who were already solo-parenting before COVID-19, have been forced to take on additional duties and maintain a near-impossible balancing act between their career, childcare, home schooling and other household responsibilities. This can create an overwhelming and stressful home environment for military children, who have been waiting at home, despite everything, for their deployed parent to return.

A military child attends virtual school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even if a military family’s service member is not deployed, their loved one must still put on the uniform and go to a high-stress and high-stakes job every day – after all, there is no “work from home” option for most people in the military. As if that wasn’t enough, nationwide childcare shortages, particularly within the military community, have become a recent problem in the pandemic. This has left many military parents scrambling to find safe, quality childcare solutions as they continue to work and serve the nation.

So, what does all this mean for military families, especially as families look to the start of the traditional school year?

How the USO Supports Military Children and Their Families

One of the biggest challenges of life as a military child is constantly having to start over, which can lead to feeling unsettled, or a lack of sense of belonging.

The USO and cartoonists have come together to create coloring sheets for military children, to help them navigate the stress of the coronavirus pandemic through art. | Photo credit USO Wiesbaden

To counteract those feelings, it is important to maintain some continuity in their life, such as through extracurricular activities, military base celebrations or the consistent involvement of military support organizations like the USO. In fact, a 2018 interview series found that the USO was the support organization most talked about by the participants who experienced an overseas move as a military child.

No matter where their moves take them, USO centers around the country and the world are a constant in the lives of military children. Whether they are in Virginia or Japan, a military child can walk through the doors of their local USO and be greeted with that familiar red, white and blue logo, comfy couches, games, movies and snacks. For many military children – and their families – USO centers serve as a safe haven when everything else in their lives has changed.

A military child enjoys an after school snack from the USO. | Photo credit Sandi Gohn/USO

The USO also ensures that military children can stay connected to their military parent even during deployments. The Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program is incredibly popular among service members and military children alike. Through the program, service members film themselves reading a book and send the recording to their children back home. The children also receive a copy of the book in the mail, so they can read along with the recording. This program is especially popular with younger military children, who may struggle to understand where or why their parent has gone.

The USO also provides programs specifically geared towards military kids, to support the youngest members of our military community and to make them feel seen and appreciated. Whether it’s a designated snack hour event just for them or a visit from an NFL star while they’re stationed far from home in South Korea, USO programs and events are there for military children every step of the way.

How the USO is Supporting Military Children During COVID-19

At its core, the USO’s mission is one of connection, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges of separation that many military families face every day. That’s why, over the past few months, the USO has renewed its efforts to keep service members connected to their children, as well as provide whatever support necessary for military children to feel connected to the military community around them.

Worldwide, the USO has shifted to online, virtual and socially distanced programming. For the military children who experienced some of the tightest lockdown restrictions while stationed abroad in Italy, USO Naples provided a virtual peek out their window through virtual field trips to different places on base. For those who have had to adhere to social distancing for months on-end due to COVID-19 outbreaks in South Korea, USO Humphreys started a gardening club, so that military children and their families could still connect with one another and the outside world by growing plants together. Meanwhile, Bob Hope USO in California has kept military kids entertained through the pandemic with virtual scavenger hunts.

The Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program is a great way for military parents to stay connected to their children while on deployment. The program is especially popular among service members in the Middle East. | Photo credit USO Erbil

For military children who are stateside with a deployed parent overseas, the temporary closures of USO centers in the Middle East did not stop their parents from reading them bedtime stories from across the globe via the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program. Recognizing how difficult it could be to lose this connection to each other with the centers closed, the USO team in Iraq got creative and outfitted a pickup truck with a mobile reading room on wheels, ensuring that military children and their service member parent could still forge those crucial bonds while on deployment.

Teenagers can lessen the sting of separation from friends by joining activities such as a USO virtual teen book club. And for those military high school seniors whose high school graduations were canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions, USO Hawaii provided makeshift, drive-thru high school graduation ceremonies with masks and leis aplenty.

Although graduation ceremonies around the world have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USO is trying to ensure that military children still feel celebrated. | Photo credit USO Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the extreme importance of connection and consistency in the lives of military children. Although they have always faced these challenges, COVID-19 has made the challenges of life as a military child all the more apparent – but it has also shown their incredible resilience in the wake of difficult situations. But regardless of whether they’re tackling the next PCS move, making new friends or a global pandemic, the USO is by the side of military children every step of the way.

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As the COVID-19 outbreak is evolving, the USO has pivoted resources across the entire global enterprise in an approach that helps care for military members and their families.

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