The other caring adult in school parents might not know about.
Parents have a go-to list of people they can call on if their child is struggling at school. The list is short but reliable – their teacher or school counselor. But there is another quiet helper working behind the scenes in many school hallways across the globe, watching your military-connected kid on the playground or maybe even stealing a moment with them in the lunchroom. The quiet helper isn’t a school employee or parent volunteer, it’s a Military Family Life Counselor (MFLC) who is working inside many schools across the states and overseas.
My first encounter with an MFLC was while we were stationed in Germany. We were roughly three months from a PCS back the states when my third grade daughter started feeling anxious and had strange “yucky feelings in her belly” when the topic of moving came up in conversation. One night, as I’m tucking her in, she says, “Mom, I feel invisible. I don’t think anyone sees me at school. I feel forgotten.” I stared deep into her eyes, grabbed her hand and asked why she felt such big feelings for an eight year old. While fighting back tears, she explained that her friends at school have already moved on without her. No one is sitting with her at lunch, asking for play dates or wanting to pair up as partners. She felt invisible.
I know her class, I know these little girls. As a whole, these students are simply an amazing group of kids. It was hard to fathom this was happening, yet I could not ignore the very big feelings coming out of this little body. After contacting her teacher, she mentioned there was a bit of girl drama amidst the lunchroom and playground. She noticed my daughter was isolating herself more and more. She suggested I contact the local MFLC at school for help.
What was the MFLC going to do? I had no idea why I needed to bring in a life counselor for what was clearly a case of third grade mean girls. But, what kind of parent would I be if I didn’t at least try to find a way to help my daughter feel visible again on the eve of another stressful move. With a hefty bit of skepticism, I made an appointment during school hours to meet with the MFLC.
We sat in her small office to chat. It was full of books, games and art supplies. I explained the situation and the gut punch phrase my daughter used to describe her feelings, “I feel invisible.” the MFLC then asked me about whether a move was on the horizon and did she understand what that meant. I confirmed both. Within a few minutes she shook my hand, showed me to the door and said, “I think I know what is happening, I’ve got an idea. I’ll be in touch.”
During the next week, the MFLC held a series of two lunches for all girls in the classroom. It was billed as a special lunch where kids could do art and draw while they eat. The MFLC gently poked and prodded each girl with questions surrounding the feeling of empathy.
“How do you think if feels to know you’re moving away? How does it feel to be left behind? What would make you feel better if you felt alone on the playground or felt left behind?”
Each girl answered in ways that made you proud to be a parent because they understood, empathized and couldn’t wait to help another child in need. The questions and comments also saddened me to know military life inflicts these types of emotions, almost predictable, onto kids of every age with every move cycle.
In the end, the MFLC was able to skillfully breakdown the big emotions into a simple feeling of empathy. Because my daughter’s friends knew she was leaving, they began to build new relationships with other classmates who were staying. They hadn’t really processed that my daughter might be hurt be this sudden change in behavior. They were protecting themselves from the feelings of their best friends leaving them and creating new bonds to replace the one leaving. Absolutely a natural thing to do! They hadn’t processed what it might mean or how it would feel to the friend who is leaving.
The MFLC was able to invoke the powerful emotion of empathy in not only my daughter, but to all of her classmates. The very next hour, my daughter because visible again. And for the few weeks left in school, she thrived on having solid friendships until the day we boarded the plane. She also let go a little, allowed others to enjoy friendships without her because she knew they needed it, too.
An MFLC changed the narrative for our family; she was able to see the root of the problem unique to military life – a transient lifestyle. I was grateful that our school invited an MFLC to be on school campus, available to parents and access to students. Without her, I think our daughter would have felt very different about the last few months of school before a PCS and ultimately about being part of a military family.
Having an MFLC inside the halls of a school with a high military population is ideal for military families and school staff. They are paid for by the Department of Defense and can be located in youth centers, public schools and on military installations. MFLC’s are different than school counselors and school psychologist, but work within the same area of care. The only difference is an MFLC specializes in issues related to the highly mobile and stressful issues surrounding military life.
My children are lucky to attend a middle school in Florida now that allows an MFLC space and access to military-connected students. The principal openly welcomed the help for her nearly 160 active duty military students. The MFLC floats between several schools each week, giving her access to more than 400 military kids. From new students issues to deployment issues, she keeps fairly busy.
MFLC’s can offer assistance to military parents on many issues including:
• Resolving conflicts
• Helping children deal with angry feelings
• School adjustment
• Deployment and separation
• Reunion adjustment
• Sibling and parent-child communication
• Behavioral concerns
• Fear, grief and loss
MFLC’s unfortunately cannot help in the area of academics, transcripts or course placement. But they are a resource parents and students can reach out to if they are feeling overwhelmed, angry or stressed – school related or not. But if a student is struggling or has an abrupt change in behavior, an MFLC could help a student dig a little deeper into how they process change.
Like a guidance counselor or teacher, an MFLC can also be those extra set of eyes on your child while in school. Informing an MFLC if a student’s parent is deployed, injured or having issues with adjusting after a deployment might be that extra caring adult in the lunchroom watching to see how a student is adjusting outside the home. However, talk to your child about what they need from an MFLC. Not all children want to be pulled from lunch or reminded daily their father is sick or mother is deployed. As a parent, it’s your right to set boundaries with an MFLC.
In our book Seasons of My Military Student: Practical Ideas for Parents and Teachers, Amanda Trimillos and I describe the school cycle for military students as the Seasons of Transition™. We believe students experience four Seasons: Leaving, Arriving, Growing and Thriving with every move. However, many students can experience Storms at an anytime and in any Season. Even without a change of school, a change at home can bring on a Storm where outside help is needed.
Marissa Love, a parent and an Army reserve spouse, knows what it’s like to weather a Storm. She knows what it was like to need professional help for her son but didn’t have to the resources such as MFLC nearby.
“We met the MFLC at our Operation Purple Family Retreat and the timing could not have been better. Our son was displaying some major behavioral issues, especially some separation anxiety. We figured that it was due to the start of school, a not so wonderful year in kindergarten and a classmate who decided that our son was his target for his aggressive behavior.”
The MFLC pointed out the Loves were a reserve family and their son might be dealing with separation due to his father’s consistent absence for trainings and deployments. The behavior change in her son was his way of expressing his struggle with separations since he didn’t quite understand his feelings at his age. The MFLC suggested seeking help with another MFLC in their home state of Connecticut when they returned from camp. Unfortunately, Love couldn’t find the help she was looking for.
“Upon our return home, we reached out to the National Guard bureau as well as other military support agencies to find our MFLC only to find out that our state had cut the positions. We also tried Fort Family and their program was ended. We tried Military One Source but their counseling referrals began at age 13. It was frustrating to know what our son needed and having no one to turn to gather the support for him. When we finally were able to reach someone who would work with him, they had no background in dealing with military children or the challenges and stressors that they faced. While she did help, a year later while some things are better, with my husband taking battalion command in another state, the attachment and separation anxiety have returned. If there were MFLCs in our state, we would have had a go to person who not only understood the challenges these children face, but also ways to support them.”
Love hopes her story will resonate with school administrators with a significant military student population, especially guard and reserve families. Having an MFLC available, even a few days a month or by phone, might be the difference to a military family seeking help.
Schools have made tremendous strides since 9/11 in understanding the unique lifestyle of military-connected students and their needs. From the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children to professional development on challenges of military-connected students face – schools are slowly equipping themselves with tools to support our population. And like these tools, an MFLC is a resource available to schools without any financial impact to schools or families.
Not all schools have access to MFLC’s, so reach out to your school to see if an MFLC is available on site. You might be surprised to know there is one available and maybe even more surprised by what they can accomplish while your kids are in school.
If you think your child might benefit from talking to another caring adult who understands military challenges or help navigating emotional side transition, visit MilitaryOneSource, to find the closest MFLC to in your area or other counseling options for military families.