Imagine if you had no idea what would happen in your life from day to day. What if you didn’t know any of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for your job? What would it feel like to have no clue what would or wouldn’t upset your boss? For most of us, what would cause a lot of anxiety! The same is true for children. They need consistency.
But, what does it really mean to be a consistent parent? Why is it important? And, is it even possible for military families who are constantly experiencing change and transition? Between PCSs, NTCs, TDYs, and deployments, is it possible to be consistent?
What is consistent parenting?
First, consistent parenting means that you are reliable. If you say you’re going to do something, your children know for sure that you will do it.
Consistent parenting also means that you create a predictable environment for your child. Children in predictable environments know the general structure of their day, they know the rules of the home, and they know the consequences of following vs. not following the rules.
Finally, consistent parents are steady. This means your approach with your children is regular and controlled. This doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to get upset or have a bad day. However, being steady means that your reactions to your emotions are within your control and your children understand those reactions (which goes back to being predictable).
Why is consistency important?
Consistent parenting helps your child experience a sense of safety, and builds self-esteem as children learn to succeed and make you proud! On the other hand, inconsistent can have negative effects on children. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology1, inconsistent parenting of divorced parents was linked to childhood depression and conduct problems, especially for children who struggled with impulsivity.
How to be consistent throughout military transitions
Below are some tips for maintaining reliable, predictable, steady parenting, even when the curveballs of military life are thrown your way.
- Follow your parenting values. No matter what state or military base you live on - whether your spouse is 17 minutes or 17 hours away - there are certain things that you believe are important for your child to learn, and ways you believe that is best accomplished. These are your parenting values. Think of them as your roadmap to parenting. To be consistent, you and your partner must have the same roadmap. Having the same roadmap means that you know the general parenting direction your spouse would take, even in their absence. Take the time to sit down with your partner regularly to discuss your family’s parenting values. Include your children in conversations about these values and discuss what you expect of them.
- Have predictable, yet flexible routines and rituals. Routines are essential parts of a predictable This is especially true for children who encounter frequent transitions. Although your neighborhood, daycare, or school may change, your family can maintain certain routines and traditions that carry through each change. Routines and rituals can be created around any daily activities such as bedtime, mealtimes, and mornings. This means that your children will know the general order of the activity (e.g., first get pajamas on, then we brush our teeth, then we read a story, then lights out) and the rules around this activity (e.g., no TV after 8pm). Rituals can also be created around special events, such as first or last days of school, birthdays, or holidays. These are predictable activities that children can depend on and look forward to. Of course, these rituals must be flexible to account for frequent moves or separations due to training or deployment. This may mean Dad/Mom reads the bedtime story via video chat. I know of one family who had two Thanksgiving dinners – one on Thanksgiving and another upon their deployed service member’s return – so that Dad could carve the turkey. When routines and traditions must be flexed due to military transitions, talk about that change with your children so that they know what to expect. For big changes in daily routines, it is even helpful to practice the change before it occurs. For more tips on this, see my related article on how to coparent with a deployed spouse.
- Create tradition around change While frequent change is stressful, many families also say that there is something special about being a part of a military family. Some families even tell me that those changes – moves, deployments, TDYs – both challenge them and give them opportunities to grow as a family. I notice that these are the families who make meaning of changes and create traditions around them. For example, I work with many families who have traditions around making special care packages for their deployed service member, or building and maintaining a deployment wall. I know a family who created a family book about each place they lived throughout their military career. These traditions help children make meaning of the frequent changes around them and help give them that sense of safety and predictability that is vital for children.
- Regularly engage in self-care. We are our best selves and the best parents for our children when we are taking care of ourselves. Changes aren’t just stressful for our children; they are stressful for parents too. Staying reliable, predictable, and keeping a steady hand takes a lot of emotional energy. Engaging in self-care is like filling up your “emotional energy gas tank.” Make it a priority to get enough sleep, eat foods that make you feel well, decompress with your favorite book, and reach out to supportive people in your life. So, when you find out that you will be PCSing in two months to *Insert last place you would ever want to live,* you have some gas in that tank. Gas that you will need to keep your frustration under control and give predictable consequences when your toddler has a tantrum later that day. The key is regular self-care.
- Give yourself a break. None of us are perfect, and we can’t be consistent 100% of the time. We are human and that is important for our children to see as well. So, if you realize you didn’t follow a parenting value, or you gave your child a confusing consequence, don’t beat yourself up. Just let your child know you made a mistake - that we all make mistakes - and then follow through with making the needed change.
Consistency in parenting is tough work and takes some extra creativity for military families. But, the work you put into being reliable, predictable, and steady will be well worth it as your child grows up feeling safe and confident as your family moves through and grows from each change.
Vanessa Jacoby, PhD
1.Lengua, L. J.,Wolchik, S. A., Sandler, I. N, & West, S. G. (2000). The additive and interactive effects of parenting and temperament in Predicting Adjustment Problems of Children of Divorce. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 29, 232– 244.