How to Teach Your Military Child Empathy

Photo by Sgt. Mandaline Hatch/Marine Corps
Photo by Sgt. Mandaline Hatch/Marine Corps

We live in a little bit of an echo chamber at times. Everywhere we look, we see military struggles: Tricare, deployments, PCS.

Our kids are used to this life. It is their benchmark for things that are "hard." The weekend training trip? Not as bad as a three-month TAD/TDY, which isn't as hard as a combat or overseas deployment. PCSing? Kids who stay in one place for three years, or more, are considered "lucky." Those who stick it out for at least a school year don't have it quite as hard as military children who must PCS after just a few months.

There are levels within the military child community that help describe "difficult" things. Seeing that non-military children might have struggles could be challenging.

We've been sending a mixed message.

Even as adults, we seem to dismiss the struggles of others. This is especially true, it appears, for military spouses. Everyone has seen the comments about civilian friends missing their spouses: "Why is she complaining about her partner's three-day work trip? Sam's been gone for eight months! I'd love three-day trips right now."

We comment negatively about a friend back home who is grousing about moving "just" across town: "Packing up one house after ten years? I wish I had it that easy! She should try moving twice in one year like we've done."

We even do it to each other. We compare places that spouses have been deployed (combat deployments trump MEU or unaccompanied non-combat tours), places we've been stationed (Hawaii is pretty great and, well, each service seems to have its own uniformly disliked base), and PCS horror stories (entire trucks getting stolen, Grandma's heirloom chair breaking, movers who ask which items you'd like to donate to them). We can be dismissive of what other military spouses are feeling, admonishing them to "suck it up" and remind them that they "know what they were getting into."

When we treat other military families like this, what message does it send our children about showing empathy for others when they are struggling?

Empathy starts at home

Our children might pick up on our unconscious modeling. They could be equally quick to dismiss the feelings of their civilian children, too.

Use books and TV shows to help your child connect to all children. Point out the emotions of characters and explain: "Daniel Tiger feels sad when he is away from his mom, just like you feel sad when you are away from your mom."

Continue this as your child gets older. If you see a friend who seems to be struggling, ask your child what they notice or what they think is going on. Encourage your child to name the possible emotions of their friend or pinpoint the cause. Then brainstorm ways for your child to support their friend.

The more often we are modeling empathetic behavior (acknowledging and supporting the emotions of others) the more likely our children will be to do the same.

Not every family

One important thing to remember is that each family, military or civilian, is a mini-culture of its own. You might operate within the general US military family culture, but the way that you and your spouse handle situations and parenting might look very different from your neighbors.

Something that your child might receive a consequence for could be let go in another family.

As your child grows and ventures beyond your home, it's important to start talking about family culture. You could talk about things that are okay to do at home but might not be okay to do in public or with another family. Some areas to discuss might be rules and consequences, table manners, language, personal body space, and cleanliness. Having these conversations is important to prepare your child to understand that families are different. Knowing that different rules apply based on who you are with or where you are is helpful in building empathy. Doing this allows your child to gain situational awareness and be more understanding about changes or how people react to situations.

Generalize empathy beyond the home

Military children, no matter where they live, are bound to interact with non-military children. At school, sports, or at community events, our lives will intersect. All of these children are also dealing with hard things. We just don't know about it, yet.

At school, especially non-DoDEA schools, remind your child that not everyone has a parent in the military. As a result of our often insular community, they might honestly think this is the case. You could talk about hard things that many children might be dealing with outside of military life. Many children might deal with death or illness of a family member, friend, or pet. Divorce and other family changes, like remarriage or blending families, happen in many homes. If your child knows what these things feel like, you might encourage them to reach out to a friend who is going through a similarly tough time.

When your child hasn't experienced major non-military life events, grab a book to help them understand. There are tons of great books to help children through everything from a new baby to the death of a loved one. Read together, then talk about the book and what your child's friend might be going through. Ask your child to put themselves in their friend's shoes and imagine what they might be feeling, thinking, and doing. Brainstorm together what might make your child feel better and what might help the friend.

It's all about creating a space to talk through situations with your child. You can even use real-time events to help your child develop a sense of empathy. You might witness a teammate's meltdown at soccer practice over a missed goal or watch a child being chastised for poor behavior. Use those moments, and any other situations you feel comfortable discussing, to build up empathy in your child.

You can identify together what happened: "Sally missed that save at soccer and really lost her cool. What do you think she was feeling?"

Then ask your child to step into their friend's shoes: "Sally screamed and kicked the net for a long time afterward. What do you think you might have done in that situation?"

Finally, talk about a way to help the friend feel better: "If Sally, or another teammate, is having a hard time at soccer, what do you think you could do to help them? What would make you feel better in that situation?"

You can adapt this script for each situation you and your child are talking through. When you talk about circumstances that don't involve people you know, keep your conversations very private and more "what if" centered: "What if someone you know was going through XYZ? What if you were feeling ABC?"

Different cultures, different experiences

One of the major perks of military life is getting the chance to live OCONUS for a few years. However, an overseas duty station also presents additional complications to raising a military child with empathy for others. Whether you are living in England, Abu Dhabi, or Japan, your family will be plunged into different cultures immediately while also living within a traditional US military community. There is often a significant language barrier. It can be a lot to handle, even for adults.

While your child may or may not be fully immersed in the local culture, they will still need to move within its boundaries. It's important to be proactive in your own research and in your conversations as a family.

Before you move, take some time to research social customs and parenting roles. Really look into how parents interact with their children in public and behavior expectations that have been reinforced over time for the children. This can help you to prepare, mentally, for what you might see in public and could influence how you interact with your child during a very visible meltdown.

Then, start reading books with your child about your next duty station. Focus on things that might show common bonds, like fairy tales that are similar across cultures, and informational books. You're looking to build connections and awareness.

As you are preparing to move and once you arrive, continue to talk about cultural norms. Explain what they might see in different situations: Off-base school, shopping, playing off-base sports, and traveling locally or regionally.

As you see situations that are being handled differently, take the time to talk to your child about what happened. If you do understand the reasons behind certain actions or situations, explain them and make connections to what might have happened in your own family. If you don't know why something happened a particular way, work with your child to build that understanding together.

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