April is one of the best months of the year for the Boys & Girls Club family, because it is when we celebrate the Month of the Military Child! You may be familiar with BGCA’s partnership with the branches of the Armed Forces that operate BGCA programs in youth centers on bases around the world, but you may not be aware that 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the partnership between BGCA and the military, making this year’s Month of the Military Child celebration even more exciting. But Youth Centers on military installations aren’t the only places where young people who are military-connected may be found. In fact, most military families do not live on military bases or installations, they live in the local communities. So, these military connected youth may be members of your Club or in the local community looking for the world class youth development programs that you offer! Plus, you may have youth who have siblings, other loved ones, friends, teachers, and neighbors who serve. So anytime we talk about what young people may need, everyone should tune in.
Military life is one of great honor and opportunity, but it also has some unique challenges for military-connected youth. Constant relocation into new communities and long or short deployments of parents and loved ones into dangerous areas can bring trauma into the lives of these military-connected youth. Your role as youth development professionals is to help them build the skills necessary to remain resilient in facing the challenges of military life. Here are five points to keep in mind when you serve military connected youth:
Military-connected youth live with LOTS of transitions. For some, they may have to move along with their families when their military parent is deployed or transferred. Typically, military families relocate every 3 to 4 years, which means transferring to new schools and Youth Centers and constantly having to make new friends. It is not uncommon for military teens to relocate to a new duty during their senior year of high school! Although others may not relocate when their parents deploy, the household dynamic changes when the military member is away from the family. And, the dynamic changes again when the military member comes home, adding a unique challenge to the coping skills of the military-connected youth. Either way, your Boys & Girls Club can offer much needed stability.
Consider running programs like Keystone Club and Torch Club, which are ideal for military-connected youth because they are offered worldwide in both traditional Clubs and military youth centers. These familiar BGCA programs can help bring stability and a sense of home. If you currently serve a military-connected youth and you know that they will be relocating, help them get connected with the Youth Center or Club where they are heading, maybe even setting up a Zoom call to say hello.
When their loved one is on deployment, young people may have different emotional needs than usual. I remember as a kid feeling anxious when my dad was on regular business trips, so I can imagine how much harder it would be if I knew he was in an active war zone. Even if they aren’t deployed to dangerous places, physical separation from loved ones is hard, and kids and teens miss them. Big emotions may be closer to the surface than normal, and they may come out in all kinds of situations and in unexpected ways.
Work frequent emotional check-ins into your activity plans, and if those feelings are expressed through negative behaviors, respond with empathy and understanding. Make sure all staff know about what is happening. If youth need help with identifying and self-regulating their emotions, SMART Moves: Emotional Wellness can help give them these tools. For more about supporting youth with actively deployed family members, check out this ClubX Blog post.
Military-connected youth have a keen understanding of service. Young people who live military life know what it is like to sacrifice for their country, and often take on leadership roles in their families and communities. Leadership may be a role they also want to take on at the Boys & Girls Club, or they may want to have one place where they can find some balance and just be chill. This is why it is important to get to know youth as individuals and find out what *they* want.
If you know you have military-connected youth, consider suggesting service projects that are military-themed, whether care packages to deployed troops or visiting veterans in care homes, while still giving youth the chance to decide what they want to do (even if it is totally unrelated! See this Club Story from a Youth Center in Hawaii for an inspiring example). Don’t force youth into leadership roles or expect perfection. Give them a safe place where they can unwind and be supported.
Military life brings some incredible gifts and opportunities to build powerful skills. Youth who have moved often to bases around the United States or even the world have gotten to experience diverse places and viewpoints. Those who have lived overseas may have even learned other languages or cultural practices. They’ve also had lots of chances to practice social-emotional skill-building, like perseverance, resilience, perspective taking, self-efficacy, and more.
Recognize these positive attributes in youth and give them the opportunity to share what they’ve learned, whether in programs or as mentors to younger youth. While remembering the last point about not forcing them into leadership roles they don’t want, these youth can also bring valuable perspectives to youth advisory councils or even fun ideas for globally themed celebrations or activities. Interested in finding out which Boys & Girls Club programs will either give them a chance to show off the social-emotional skills they’ve learned, or may need to build muscle on? Check out the Youth Development Resource Catalog, which features all current resources.
Ultimately military-affiliated youth are just that- YOUTH. While they may have some specific life experiences that are different than the rest of us, military-connected youth are just youth and in a lot of ways they are just like any other kids and teens. They want to make friends, fit in, feel confident, and have fun. They also aren’t the only members in your Club who experience hardship and trauma. Most of the points that we talked about above may also apply to other youth in your Club, for example those who may have moved a lot, or have families who aren’t together.
If you are at a traditional Boys & Girls Club and have only a few military-connected youth, be aware of their military background and the unique challenges that it poses and use your skills and programming to help them “be normal, resilient” youth. Engage all youth in programming that teaches resilience in the face of change or loss. Both military-connected youth and other youth at your Club can build important social-emotional skills through activities in the Military Teen Ambassador badges on MyFuture. And don’t ignore all of the non-military related things in young people’s lives, like how they are doing in school or how they like to express themselves creatively. This is important to fitting in and feeling like “home!”
It is an honor for us as Boys & Girls Club and Youth Center staff to serve our country through serving youth who are connected to the military. As someone with a father who is a veteran and a brother and nephew who are currently on active duty in the US Navy, it is a part of our work I take an immense amount of pride in. BGCA hosts programs and activities throughout the year, including the 2021 Military Teen Summit, which all teens across Clubs and their advisors can attend! Learn more and register for the April 22-24, 2021 virtual event online now. You can also learn more about the services BGCA provides to military-connected youth and their families at BGCA.net/Military.