The symbol of the military child is the dandelion – a flower that can grow in almost any condition and is nearly impossible to beat down.
Military kids start over. They go to new schools and make new friends. They move to new houses and learn about new cultures. Sometimes they do it without one or both of their parents by their side.
But what if your military kid isn’t a dandelion? What if they aren’t able to find a home when they are blown from situation to situation?
I first read about dandelion and orchid children in the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. A lifelong introvert, I’d picked the book up to better understand myself. But I was shaken when I first read the description of orchid and dandelion children:
‘This theory holds that many children are like dandelions, able to thrive in just about any environment. But others […] are more like orchids: they wilt easily, but under the right conditions can grow strong and magnificent.’
I realized I was reading about my son.
My two-year-old had just started daycare at the hospital where I worked full time, and he wasn’t adjusting well. He covered his ears and cried when they had music time. He avoided the other children, turning away from them and repeating lines from books to himself. His teacher called me during my lunch break to tell me she was concerned. “I think he’s delayed,” she said.
I went back to work, but I couldn’t focus. I found myself crying in the med room, the word “delayed” cycling through my mind like a skipping CD. Delayed? My little boy, who spoke in sentences before 18 months, who knew all his letters before the age of 2? The one who sang in his crib until he fell asleep each night and woke up with a bright smile, ready to tell me his thoughts?
It didn’t compute.
I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I did know one thing – no matter how much my coworkers recommended the daycare, it was not the right place for my son.
We immediately pulled him out and found a nurturing babysitter to watch him while I worked. He seemed happier, but still, the worries nagged at me. How could he seem so bright and happy, only to transform into a shell of himself when he was at daycare?
Reading about the orchid child lit up my mind. This was why.
In the right place, he thrived. In circumstances that were more difficult, he wasn’t very adaptable and shut down. Okay, I thought. I just need to make sure he’s in an adaptable environment.
This worked out until my husband went active duty.
Our lives had been stressful before: my husband a dental student and myself a full-time critical care nurse and living in a tiny apartment with one and then two sons. Despite the difficulty in scheduling and the fast pace of our lives, we were on familiar ground. We could clear a plot for our little orchid boy, making sure he was watered and protected.
But now everything felt beyond our reach. We could hardly anticipate the changes and events in our lives; it was impossible to prepare my son for what we didn’t know. We moved three times in the following four years, from west to east and north to south. We moved ever further from familiarity and family, from the mosses and ocean waves of the Pacific Northwest to the pollen clouds and humidity of the Southeast.
I worry about all of my children during these times of transition, but my two youngest are dandelions, easily moved to excitement over their new bedrooms and new friends. They talk to kids on the playground and introduce them to me. ”Mama, look, this guy is my best friend!” Of course, there are tears and rough transitions, but my younger two children seem to bounce back quickly.
My older child, while also showing a lot of resilience, seems to feel more stress. There are more expressions of sadness about moving (“Now I don’t have any friends”) and tendencies for meltdowns and anger.
I’m still learning daily how to be the support that he needs, but a few strategies have helped my orchid child thrive during the frequent upheavals of military life:
Pay attention. I can’t help him with his emotions and struggles if I don’t see the changes. Especially in times of transition. It’s easy to be preoccupied with my own worries, the seemingly endless list of tasks involved with moving a family from one place to another. But if I keep my eyes open, I can pick up on cues that my son needs some extra nurturing.
Make his needs a priority. There are plenty of circumstances that I have no control over. I usually can’t decide where we are assigned, what his dad’s work schedule will be, or which teacher he will have in school. However, I can still prioritize consistency for him in many situations. Whether that is by keeping routines in place at home or working with his teachers to help him succeed, I can do my best to prioritize his needs.
Prepare. Sometimes I forget how much my children can understand. Having conversations to prepare for transitions and difficult situations can go a long way in helping with adjustments. Role-playing and finding books and shows that relate to situations my son is dealing with also help him to thrive.
Give him choices. In times of big change like moving, a deployment, or a pandemic, giving my child some control in his life helps him. While he can’t choose where we live or the way some events play out, I can let him direct some of his schedules for the day or choose between different responsibilities. When he has ownership over situations in his life, his stress decreases.
Even though my son doesn’t fit the stereotype of the military dandelion child, he surprises me every day. Just as I have to grow through new and difficult situations, I see him growing and adapting too, even when the soil isn’t ideal.