Helping Kids Adjust After a PCS Move

Written by Erin Warren

Another school year is coming to an end. For most Americans with children, that means entire months of lazier days, longer nights spent firing up the grill, and summer camps with friends. For many military families, however, the end of the school year ushers in something much more anxiety-inducing: summertime PCS moves.

Packing up your life and moving it elsewhere is a difficult task even for adults, let alone for children who may feel voiceless in a move over which they have no control. The Journal of Social and Personality Psychology reinforces this fact, agreeing that frequent moves are tough on kids and that adults who moved often growing up may still be affected years later, having fewer high-quality relationships and lower rates of life satisfaction.

However, there are many ways to help combat the inevitable whiplash caused by your next PCS season. Here are some simple actions you can take (like enrolling your children in activities at your next duty station) that can make all the difference!

Understanding Your PCS

In the “Land Of Acronyms” that we call the armed services, PCS stands for Permanent Change of Station. Along with a host of other letters related to moving- TDY, UA, DTY, CONUS, OCONUS, TLA (I could keep going, trust me) – these 3 letters have the ability to take over our summers and the weeks leading up to them, a block of time casually referred to as PCS season in the military community.

Although a PCS is quite literally labeled as a permanent change, in all reality it is more likely to be a set of orders lasting just 2-4 years. For example, my own family has PCSed 5 times since our oldest child (now age 9) was born at NAS Jacksonville! Moving that frequently not only makes it extra difficult for children to form lasting friendships and bond with extended family, but it can also have detrimental effects on their education and wreak havoc on the continuity of their medical care.


FAQs About PCS-ing

As defined above, the acronym PCS refers to a Permanent Change of Station, or a military move that usually involves uprooting the whole fam and trying new schools, jobs, and communities on for (temporary) size. Your PCS is inherently tied to the service member’s military orders, which determine where you’re headed, and for how long. No hard orders, no PCS. Let’s dive into some common questions and shed light on this essential aspect of military life:

How Often Do Military Families Move?

Don’t be fooled by the “permanent” in Permanent Change of Station, either the average military PCS move lasts just 2-4 years. In my husband’s decade-and-a-half-long Navy career, we have been lucky enough to remain in one place (Jacksonville, FL) longer than this window exactly one time, for 5 years. On the flip side, though, we have friends serving in the Army who have received orders to move after just 18 months more than once.

How Can Parents Help Prepare Their Kids for a PCS?

Now that they are older and involved in sports and clubs, I DREAD telling my kids that we are preparing for a PCS move. I know there will be tears and questions that only the Navy can answer. What works best for us is a gradual lead-up to the main event. I research fun events in our soon-to-be home (“Oh my gosh, you guys would LOVE this luau!”), lookup replacements for their current activities (“See? They have horseback riding on Oahu, too, and they’re accepting new students!”), and try to find quick ways to make new friends once we’ve arrived, like utilizing the Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA)’s Operation Camp low-cost, high-quality, one-day, one-week, holiday, and residential camps created to help military kids enjoy their ever-changing surroundings.

Because my kids tend to worry, I build up the positives and try to focus on them, limiting talk of our move to the most general timeline possible so that they’re able to enjoy all the time they have left in our current home. We also involve them in deciding which of their belongings come along for the immediate ride and what comes later with the movers, giving them some sense of control over the process.

No one knows how your child reacts to change better than you, so absolutely consider that anticipated reaction when it’s time to spring the news!

What Should We Do Right After Moving?

Explore, explore, explore! Nothing reinforces how much they’ve left behind more than an empty house, devoid of toys, friends, and memories. While we do always make a point of letting the kids set up their own spaces as soon as we are in our new home, we try not to be home in it too often at first, either.

I prefer to use the “Look! Squirrel!” approach and distract them with anything fun, shiny, and specific to our new community. This “temporary vacation” mindset helps balance the transition while maintaining familiar routines, like set meals and bedtimes. Think of it as trying your hardest to infuse your normal routine with fun flourishes — like the feeling they’d get when friends are in town to visit.


Finding New Activities for Kids

When attempting to find new activities after a military PCS move, the internet should be your best friend. I join all the relevant social media base and spouse groups well in advance for recommendations, and lean heavily on MWR events and local Parks and Rec sites, as well. The ASYMCA is also a fantastic resource to help military kids adapt to their new community. You can find your local branch and call to verify which resources are available in your location. Programs like Operation Hero (a free afterschool program), and Operation Little Learners (interactive parent-child education) are fun, easy, and cost-effective ways to meet other military families in your community.


Supporting Your Child Through This Change

Right after your PCS, your family unit may feel like the only normal, comfortable thing remaining in your child’s life. If your kiddo is anything like my nine-year-old, who thrives on routine and does not do well with change, it can be very important to reinforce what remains the same while still encouraging them to embrace what may be different about their new home. Make sure you take the time to actively listen to their concerns (Are they worried about making friends? Concerned they won’t find a new soccer team in time for the start of the season?). Give them a safe space to voice any potential anxieties. Moving is stressful for everyone — try your best to be patient while your children work through this exciting, nerve-wracking time.

In our family, one thing that always helps ease the initial shock of suddenly finding ourselves starting over again is letting both of our kids set up their own spaces right away, first thing. It requires a little forethought but I give each child a moving box labeled with their name and tell them they can pack whatever feels most precious at that moment, before the movers’ arrival. We make sure “their” box rides with us during the move (we ship it ahead/ transfer it to a suitcase if we’re moving OCONUS) and let them unpack it right away. Sure, everything they choose to bring might be sitting on the floor for a month while we wait for the furniture to be delivered — but it brings them a little comfort in the meantime.

We also go out of our way to maintain some semblance of a routine in the chaos. Dinner is still at 6, even if it’s served sitting on the floor. Bedtime is still at 8, even when that bed is temporarily an under-filled air mattress. Did you grab donuts for breakfast every Saturday at your last duty station? Keep things consistent —and fun — by looking up the best donut shops in your new town and trying one each week until you pick your new go-to spot.


Embracing Your New Adventure Together with ASYMCA

Getting your children involved in activities at your new duty station is a valuable tool in helping them to acclimate more quickly to their new community. Not only is the distraction from all they’ve left behind key but seeing other children their age having fun and enjoying their surroundings can help them to develop their positive feelings around an unfamiliar home. That’s not to say that you should expect everything to come up roses immediately after the boxes have been unpacked. Children’s emotions and reactions can be complicated on a good day, let alone when they are attempting to process a huge life change like a military PCS. Your patience and support of their efforts to adapt to their new environment will make all the difference!


Let ASYMCA Help You Help Your Military Kids After a PCS

The Armed Services YMCA offers many programs to help military kids focus on just that- being kids — instead of on the worries surrounding a PCS. Whether it’s through their food assistance programs or their high-quality, low-cost childcare initiatives, ASYMCA is helping to bridge the gaps in services that so many of our junior enlisted families face when moving to a new area. The ASYMCA has been there for service members and their families for over 160 years. Don’t you think it’s time your family gave them a try, too?


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