Caring for Emotions During Permanent Change of Station (PCS)

Military families are, of necessity, flexible, adaptable, and resilient. But that does not mean moving is easy, nor that we necessarily like it. One of the biggest challenges during PCS is navigating the myriad emotions that come with the move. Here are some proven strategies for military families that will help you deal with the emotions of a PCS.

In This Article:

  1. Saying Farewell
  2. Experiencing Emotions
  3. Strategies for Dealing with Emotions

About the Author

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Melanie Hart, MA, LPCC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in marriage counseling, family therapy, and anxiety & depression in women. She sees clients online and in-person at our Denver, Colorado counseling center.

PCSing again? While PCS orders do not often come as a shock, the preparation and execution of the PCS is nonetheless trying. Each PCS is unique and brings its own challenges, and changes. Military families are, of necessity, flexible, adaptable, and resilient. But that does not mean moving is easy, nor that we necessarily like it. One of the biggest challenges during PCS is navigating the myriad emotions that come with the move.

Saying Farewell

I remember our PCS from Germany to Florida well. Many of our closest friends had already PCS’d and when our time came, the leaving was not as daunting as I’d thought. The base housing unit we lived in was nearly empty in preparation for remodeling, and we were one of the last families to vacate. Our two oldest children were elementary age, and many of their friends had left or would be leaving soon. This helped foster a sense of understanding and togetherness as each family prepared to go in new and different directions. Our assignment was only three years long, and we knew and expected the PCS. Still, farewells and leaving the comfort of ‘home’ and friends was a sad and nostalgic time.

In sharp contrast, our PCS from Florida to Colorado nearly six years later was heart wrenching. Not only were our children well-established in their schools, friend groups, and extra-curriculars, our entire family was rooted in our civilian community and church; I was also developing a career. This PCS threatened many of the seams holding our family together. Moving incoming 10th and 7th grade girls was met with obvious pushback. “You’ve ruined my life” was a common rebuke to our impending move. Well-hatched strategies were concocted to live with friends and neighbors with hope to avoid the inevitable.

Our family ultimately endured the emotionally daunting task of sorting, packing, planning, and fare-welling. Our final good-byes in Florida included our closest friends and neighbors. We laughed, cried, prayed, and hit the road. Hart Family, party of 5 – check. Dog – check. The mini-van, gassed up and loaded down, was ready for the trek. And the Hart’s hearts? Heavy.

Experiencing Emotions

The emotions military families experience during PCS are as varied as the people themselves. If an assignment has been particularly challenging, a PCS may be a welcomed relief. But even through difficult tours, chances are that connections have been made, and some good times have been had. Times of transition can bring a confusing flurry of emotions for children and adults alike. Sometimes, it seems easier to ignore or discount ours and other’s emotions and focus on the task at hand. This, however, can lead to disconnection from ourselves and one another, and create additional difficulty in relationships.

Emotions are neither right or wrong, emotions are information. Emotions tell us to pay attention because something is happening. What we do with our emotions, i.e., how we respond to them, can either help us or cause us further pain. Our capacity for emotion is at the core of our humanity and reflects the wondrous aspect of being made in the image of God. John 11:33 tells us of Jesus’ “groaning in the spirit.” Many passages throughout the Old Testament speak of God’s righteous anger. The entire Bible is a testimony to God’s great love for mankind. Joy, anger, sadness, love, grief, excitement, disgust, and fear are every human’s core emotions, wired-in for our benefit. Learning healthy ways of understanding and responding to emotions helps you achieve greater satisfaction in relationships with others and yourself.

During a PCS, emotions can run the gamut. Parents may experience worry and fear over timelines, finding housing, finances, as well as their children’s and their own general wellbeing. Children may be angry at being forced to move, sad at the prospect of leaving friends, and fearful about fitting in at their new schools. Well-meaning families may try to calm one another using colloquialisms like “you’ll be fine,” “you’ll make new friends.” Sometimes we tell ourselves things like, “Don’t worry,” or “Just move on.” But do these comments and self-talk really help? Chances are they do not. There are proven strategies that can help families work through challenging emotional times, however, and help bring you closer together and deepen your relationships.

Strategies for Dealing with Emotions

  1. Validate one another’s feelings. Yes, everyone will make new friends, but leaving old friends behind is sad and will likely come with some grief. Acknowledging the sadness and caring for each other helps each of you feel validated and understood, generating deeper connection and calmness. Avoid comments that invalidate, belittle, or degrade. For example: Telling your young son to “man-up” or that “real men don’t cry” when he plays his last baseball game with his team before your move teaches him that his real feelings are wrong and must be hidden. Reflecting and understanding his sadness in the context of leaving is validating and strengthening, not only to him, but to you and his teammates. Sometimes we think validating someone will make it worse or feed into it. In reality, the opposite is true. When humans feel heard, understood and cared for, chaos and confusion often turn to peace and cooperation.
  2. Parents: Model healthy emotional response. Are you putting on a brave front for your children by holding in your own sadness and grief? Not only is it okay to let your children see your sadness, it is actually helpful to them. Or maybe you feel completely unglued when receiving delivery of your household goods and discover several soggy boxes, and rightfully so. However, taking your anger and frustration out on the delivery team is not likely to improve your situation and casts you as a hot-head. Acknowledge your anger, and choose your response. You can choose to verbally and calmly express your anger and disappointment to the delivery team, while maintaining composure and asking for their assistance toward resolution.
  3. Take personal responsibility. Maybe you reacted harshly when your daughter accused you of “ruining her life.” (I speak from personal experience here.) All is not lost, and no one is perfect. Own your response and apologize to her. Acknowledge what you did or said and seek to understand your child (see #1 above) and yourself as you work toward reconnection and restoration.
  4. Give grace – to yourself, to your family, and to others. Were you unable to say good-bye over lunch or coffee with all the ladies in the women’s group? Did you mean to tell your teenager’s coach how much you appreciate their investment in your child, but time got away? Perhaps your best friend didn’t show up at the going-away event and didn’t call to say why. Feeling disappointment at yourself and others is totally normal. Acknowledge this. Give yourself grace. Give others grace. Beating yourself up with critical self-talk like, “Tyrone must have more important things to do, he’s probably glad we’re leaving anyway,” is not only unhelpful to you, it is harmful. It amps you up with even more negative feelings of being unimportant and not cared for. Instead, speak truth to your disappointment, “I wonder what happened to Tyrone, it’s not like him to not come and not call. I’ll shoot him a text and see what’s up.”

Remember that PCSing adds stress to the already stressful life as a military family. If your family could benefit from some additional support during this difficult time of transition, do not hesitate to reach out. Any of our skilled and qualified therapists would be glad to join with you and help you all find success. We thank each of you for your sacrifices and service to our nation.

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