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  • According to the Department of Defense, 37% of active-duty military families have children, and like their active-duty parents, military kids make sacrifices in their own ways too. From coping with the challenges of a parent’s deployment to starting a new school to accommodate a recent move (known as a Permanent Change of Station or PCS), military kids commonly experience stressors that can impact their mental health. On average, military kids attend up to nine different schools before graduating high school due to relocations. What kind of impact do these frequent moves have on the mental health of military kids and their families? And what are some ways to cope with the stress?

    Military Kids Move Every Two to Four Years, On Average 

    Military families typically make a PCS move every two to four years (this is over 3 times the civilian family average), which means that the kids are constantly adjusting to new schools and environments, making new friends, and leaving old ones behind. In some cases, PCS moves can occur quickly and unexpectedly, leaving little time for closure, for kids to fully process what is happening to them, or to say goodbye. 

    Multiple studies have been conducted to measure the impact on mental health of PCS moves. The Journal of Adolescent Health published findings that military kids who move frequently were significantly more likely to have a mental health issue. In addition, it found that age was a powerful predictor of the impact on mental health, i.e., military kids aged 12-17 were four times as likely to need help from a mental health professional as military kids aged 6-11. This makes sense intuitively, as teens are already going through the changes and stresses of puberty. Add in the need to rebuild their social connections and form new friendships, and one can see why PCS moves impact teens harder.

    The stress of PCS moves affects parents too. Another study by the School Psychology Review found moving increases tension in the home in general. Kids reported feeling anger or resentment toward their parents and the military because of the disruption to their lives. Some kids reported telling their parents that they refused to move or would run away to avoid moving entirely. 

    Ways The Disruption Of A PCS Move Causes Stress

    What is it about frequent moves that causes so much burden? First, change itself is stressful to us all, as numerous studies have found over the years. And when families make a PCS move, they must adjust to a new home, new school, address, neighborhood, friends, teachers, religious community, routines, and potentially new local culture and weather. That’s a lot of change! In addition:

    • Students involved in sports who move later in the year can miss team tryouts, or the new school may not offer the same athletic programs.

    • They may feel the loss of having to end close relationships with friends at a previous school.

    • It’s more difficult to gain acceptance in a new school where cliques and social networks are already established.

    • Because of potentially limited experience with military families, civilian school staff may have a knowledge gap that affects their effectiveness working with military students.

    • Parents themselves are swamped with new jobs and to-do lists, and may not have the patience or time to consider a kid having trouble with the transition.

    • If one parent is deployed or at risk of being deployed, kids may experience further stress from the constant fear for a parent’s safety.

    All can lead to considerable stress, as kids find they lack a feeling of connection to others in their new community. As a result, symptoms of depression and anxiety can appear, such as separation anxiety, excessive worry, sleep problems, and physical complaints such as headaches or stomach pain. 

    Tips For Coping With The Stress Of A PCS Move

    PCS moves are not all doom and gloom. Research suggests that many kids develop strength and resilience from adapting to frequent military moves. And there are steps parents and schools can take to support them through the moves in order to reduce the impact on their mental health. Number one is simply to be aware of the potential mental health impacts and to watch for signs and symptoms of distress. Our previous release discussing different symptoms of mental health conditions is really helpful. Parents can read up on the impact of PCS moves, and educate themselves on ways to support kids during the transition. And as with all mental health issues, the earlier that symptoms are noticed for intervention and treatment to begin, the better the prognosis and outcomes.

    Experts Suggest These Tips For Coping With The Stress Of PCS Moves

    • Keep up established routines and rituals as much as possible, and start new rituals in the new place that encourage parent-child bonding time.

    • Talk about the move as much as possible and give kids the opportunity to vent their negative feelings (and help them find positive ones too). Parents are advised to let kids in on a little of their own misgivings about the move and to find ways to address them as a family. This provides more positive feelings of validation and control.

    • Connect with other military children and families when possible. As well, in the military community itself, most installations have a resource officer or School Liaison Officer who may be able to suggest appropriate resources.

    • Even in a civilian school where there are few military kids, school guidance counselors are the best place to start a conversation between the family and the new school, as they are the gatekeepers to community mental health resources. Even if the counselor does not have experience with military students, he or she may be able to suggest local resources with more expertise.

    Finally, although it may seem simple, making sure that kids get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and get out and exercise will go a long way toward maintaining better mental health. And when kids do exhibit symptoms of transition distress, seek out a mental health professional as early as possible.



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