Every year on November 11, Americans honor those who serve in the armed forces. Whether during wartime or peacetime; at home or abroad; no matter how long the stint of service, each of these men and women place their personal lives on hold for the good of the nation.
When service members come home to civilian life, the transition can be a complicated process of finding the identity—“spouse,” “sibling” or “parent”—whose hat was temporarily switched when becoming a “soldier.”
This process involves the entire family, and is especially difficult when young children from birth to five years are a part of the family unit. As part of Child360’s focus on supporting early learning from all angles, we wondered about the unique challenges of parenting for current or former service members.
“The military doesn’t take away your responsibility, but it takes you away from those responsibilities” – Luis Barajas
For insight into the issue, we reached out to Child360’s Luis Barajas, Family Engagement Specialist, who also has a niche focus on male engagement; he dedicates himself to strengthening parental involvement in children’s education by improving lines of communication between families and schools/caregivers and helping parents acquire crucial skills and knowledge about their child’s developmental process.
As a parent, and also as a veteran, Barajas brings a special perspective to interactions with military families, with a deeply personal understanding of how military service affects the family dynamic.
“The demands of military service present unique challenges for parents juggling enlistment with family time,” he says. “Unpredictable assignments and long deployments undermine the consistency of civilian life.”
Like any parent, “Service members want to be involved in their children’s lives, but are often unable to attend everyday events like parent meetings and milestone birthdays, graduation ceremonies.” In the most extreme cases, a soldier returns to a toddler they’ve never met.
Barajas especially understands the internal conflicts that emerge at home: “The rigidity the military instills in service members is difficult to switch-off once back with family,” he explains. That training can be difficult to overcome, but, “Young children are emotionally and developmentally unprepared for strict and unforgiving regimens,” which, in any case, are not well suited for the home environment.
The challenge for military parents is to replace that ingrained intolerance for weakness or mistakes with sensitivity and empathy. Barajas emphasizes that parent education is a key factor. Both military and civilian parents can experience impatience with a child if they haven’t adequately learned about the natural developmental process. When a child drops a cup of juice, is that because they were inattentive? Or perhaps their motor skills are just not advanced enough for the task. Teaching the fundamentals of childhood development to parents is important for helping them understand their child’s behavior in order to meet them where they are.
Self-care and patience are important factors in family reintegration after deployment, and Barajas stresses that quality resources are growing more abundant every day. “Simply being a young parent is a daunting task,” he points out, “But there are additional concerns that can arise with military service.” From meeting the psychological needs of combat veterans, to navigating the emotions of children whose routine is disrupted by the return of an unfamiliar parent, reintegration is an ongoing process.
The military itself has, over the years, increased its recognition that “making family part of the mission” pays social dividends in the ranks and back home. They encourage and facilitate the use of technological advances, such as video-conferencing, that keep service members in touch with family, because the military mission benefits when soldiers can better focus on their job with less anxiety about home.
US Department of Veterans Affairs offers support for parents in the military, including a free, anonymous online course in parenting strategies. Veterans’ centers also provide training workshops to educators about integrating parents into their children’s lives and education. Luis Barajas stresses the importance of educators being aware of who the military parents are in their community. “Strengthen that parent’s capacities to raise their children, and encourage them as they progress.” he recommends. “The better a parent feels about their abilities, the more enthusiastic they will be.”
Additional Online and Print Resources
Military One Click is another resource Barajas recommends. Full of content to inform and entertain the military community, this site offers special support for military spouses, strategies to reintegrate into civilian life, and lots of information for every aspect of family life.
The Veteran’s Parenting Toolkit: Preschool, published by the University of Minnesota’s College of Education & Human Development, has excellent information on everything from developmental markers to sleep dysfunction in children, along with suggestions for games to play with your kids and ways to strengthen the relationship with your partner.
Zero to Three offers resources for military families and the professionals who serve them, all designed for strengthening family connections with infants and toddlers of service members.
Operation We Are Here contains practical information for the military community and military supporters, including civilians who often don’t know what to say…or not say. Their website has extensive reading lists of books directed at early readers that grapple with deployed parents, PTSD, Gold Star families, and other touchy subjects in age-appropriate ways.
“Veteran’s Day isn’t just about honoring service, but about how the nation serves our veterans upon their return.” – Luis Barajas