(U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher)
Tough. Adaptable. Resilient. Cultivated. Hardy. Well-rounded.
These are all words that have been used to describe military kids. They've certainly earned these badges of honor, but military kids are still young and in need of strong guidance along the windy road of military life.
And along the way, we parents often hear the chorus of military life echoing in our minds:
Are the kids okay?
Even as we are proud of them for adapting to big challenges and embracing the world's diversity, we still wonder how our military kids feel deep down inside. And we still hope they know that they can rely on us, talk to us, trust us.
When we're caught wondering, we can turn to practical strategies that are proven to strengthen relationships between parents and children. Doing so is more productive than wondering and worrying, and the results might just give us the answer to that echoing question.
The next time you're wondering, give these four strategies a try:
Break out the art supplies
(Photo by Nicolas Buffler)
Engaging in artwork is not only a great way for children (and adults) to express their emotions, it's also a great way to bond and relax.
Developmental psychologist Richard Rende studied the effects of parents and children engaging in creative work together. Children experienced cognitive, social and emotional benefits, but Rende also emphasized that 95 percent of moms reported that the quality time spent with their kids was one of the most important benefits.
The Cleveland Clinic's clinical psychologist Scott M. Bea notes that people can feel calmer by coloring in books like the popular mosaic coloring books. He describes this as a "meditative exercise," which helps people relax and de-stress.
If you can't stomach complicated projects involving paints and glue, then opt for plain paper and markers or coloring books. The creative activity will be pleasurable, allowing your minds to take a break from worrying about deployments and transitions, and enjoy special time together in the process.
Talk like your phone doesn't exist
(Flickr photo by Mad Fish Digital)
Good conversations don't have to resemble a session with Freud, but the more you show your kids that you're focusing on them and nothing else, the better. So leave your phone at home or keep it tucked in your purse or pocket. Do what you have to do to resist its temptation, so that you and your kids can enjoy talking, uninterrupted.
Go for a walk, have a picnic or take your kids out for a "date." Ask simple questions about school or friends, and follow their lead from there. If a deployment or a PCS is approaching, ask them how they're feeling about it. If they tell you, great – validate their feelings and help process them. But, if they don't feel like sharing, that's okay, too.
Clinical psychologist and developer of Parenting for Service Members and Veterans Peter Shore says, "Recognize and respect when children don't want to talk, but be available when they're ready."
Tell them how you're feeling, too. Military kids might not realize that their strong, confident parents also get nervous and frustrated (and excited and optimistic!) about major events in military life. Sharing your feelings and talking about how you cope with them will set a good example and build trust.
Create your own traditions
(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Brad Mincey)
Traditions don't have to be only about Christmas morning and birthday dinners – you can think outside the box and create traditions that are unique to your family and reflect your unique military life.
These can be as simple as family dinners, family game night or reading before bedtime. But you can also design traditions out of activities your family enjoys or the location where you're currently stationed. If your family is adventurous, make the first Saturday of every month "Adventure Saturday," and explore a different part of your current location. If you're crafty, devote the first Sunday of every month to creating something to decorate your home or send to a family member.
As long as the focus is on the family bonding through that activity (i.e., no screens are on or within reach!), these moments can serve as special, reliable traditions that your children will grow to rely on and value, especially during times of added stress.
Open a book
(Photo by Neeta Lind)
Reading aloud to your kids, even when they're independent readers, is one of the best ways to build a strong relationship with your child. Research shows that when parents read aloud to their children, the very sound of their voice is calming, and the feeling of being snuggled up on a bed or a couch provides a sense of security. This simple activity can be a welcome balance to the uncertain times of deployment or PCS.
Reading aloud can also prompt important conversations. When you read, pause and empathize with characters, or relate your own experiences to situations that occur in the story. Encourage your children to do the same, and remain open to discussing how stories relate to emotions and experiences in military life.
Reading just about any book will provide you with a great tool to bond with your military kid, but you can find suggestions for age-appropriate books that relate to military life here.
Even if you're pretty convinced that the kids are, indeed, okay, trying one of these strategies could still reap some valuable rewards. Using the Month of the Military Child as an opportunity to make one of these activities a common practice in your house will show your military kids that you're proud of them and you love them – something that even the toughest, most adaptable and most resilient kids still need to know.
This article originally appeared on Military Spouse. Follow @MilSpouseMag on Twitter.