BY KIMBERLY COPLAND & CAITLIN COOK
Thirty years ago, then Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger declared April the “Month of the Military Child.” This sentiment was later formalized with the passing of Senate Resolution 107 on April 23, 2013, which, in part, stated that “in honoring the children of members of the Armed Forces” we, the people, “recognize that those children also share in the burden of protecting the United States.”
Since then, April has become a month filled with various ceremonies and events honoring and thanking military children for their service, which is typically quiet, steadfast and unseen. Upon closer examination, their role in supporting their families and in helping to maintain operational readiness is one that is worthy of year-round recognition for their year-round sacrifice. Then again, most military children we know don’t expect acknowledgment for their special support of the Armed Forces – they are generally too busy living their full, often adventurous, regularly-on-the-move, “normal” lives.
Originally, this entry was going to be titled “Clinical Considerations & Recommendations for Working with the Military Child.” As psychologists who have worked with children in different settings, we considered presenting common mental health and educational problems faced by this special population, along with relevant clinical resources to address those issues. But living amongst our respective military communities and working with military youth and their families has raised the realization that military children are generally extremely resilient; certainly they show far more strengths than struggles. In fact, military kids tend to flex, adapt and overcome in parallel to their parents’ experiences. Since no two family narratives are exactly alike, each child is unique in his or her own way of adapting. We have seen this time and time again with the military families we have worked with. So, our intent with this blog post is not to dismiss the fact that sometimes a military child will experience problems requiring clinical intervention, but rather to highlight the need to more closely examine and learn about this group from a cultural (and strengths-based) versus a clinical (i.e., pathological vulnerabilities) perspective.
In doing so, we are sure to learn some lessons that will help with awareness, prevention, wellness-promotion and resiliency-building for children of both military and non-military families.
Military Children: Who are they?
While military children are hardly invisible to those of us who live and work within the military community, they are likely much less known and understood by the non-military majority that comprises our country’s population. Recent demographic studies show that approximately 2 million American children (ages infant -18 years) have at least one parent serving in the military. The majority of these children is very young and has only ever known the military family lifestyle. While past studies focused mainly on characteristics of the children of active-duty military Service members, more recent studies also look at the children of those Service members within the Reserve and National Guard. Consideration for the children of Veterans is still lacking.
Of the 2 million current military children, many are very young, with 73% being 11 years old or younger. The majority live in small, rural communities that are not “military-centric” (those that do not necessarily have a big military presence) and so function without benefit of Family Readiness Groups or other military community resources. These children are diverse in their representation across race, ethnicity, and family typology (i.e., dual military, military-civilian couple, single parent, LGBT family). So, in addition to the “military brat” culture, these children bring their own unique cultural experiences to an already rich tradition. Significantly, many military children will grow up to become Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen or Marines themselves, with an estimated 57% of active-duty Service members being the children of former or current active-duty or reservist service members (per a 2011 Force study). In many ways, today’s military children represent the face of the tomorrow’s military force.
What their Lives look like: Common Challenges & Obstacles Overcome
While the life of the military child can be full of scenery changes and experiential learning opportunities, it is not without challenges. It is important to remember that their parents are still military Service members and that the energy requirements of parenting and full time military commitment are often competing factors. (Ever heard the statement, “If the military wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one”?) Still, many families demonstrate skill and resilience in maintaining life balance and conquering those obstacles typically faced by military families – but this is not without effort.
Although recent emphasis has been placed on war injuries like PTSD and its potential effects on the family, more common issues encountered include separation from caregivers due to deployment or geo-separation for duty, frequent relocation and all the associated social adjustments, and educational challenges due to school changes. Also, children, as a part of the family system are not immune to any other stressors encountered by their parents in the name of military service.
Since 2001, over 2 million children have experienced the deployment of at least one parent. Almost 1 million of these children have weathered multiple deployments. On top of the prolonged separation from a primary caregiver, children may worry about mommy or daddy being in harm’s way or the possibility that a parent might not return home at all. When a parent does return a normal period of readjustment typically ensues. Pre- and post-deployment periods may or may not be complicated by changes/added stressors on the home front. If the Service member returns with a physical or psychological injury, the family must learn to adjust to a new normal. Keep in mind that not all military parent absences are deployment-related, with additional family separations often occurring due to geo-bacheloring, training exercises and temporary active-duty assignments away from home.
Missed birthdays, holidays and other developmental milestones can pile up, but many military families have learned how to “save up” or modify celebrations so that these may be enjoyed post-reunion. Military families (and their supporters) are also pretty creative and many military children have learned to relish parent reminders like Daddy/Mommy dolls, favorite books recorded by the parent who is away, using the absent parent’s t-shirt as a pillowcase, or international Skype calls. The (approximate) number of days left until a parent’s returns are often tracked via candy jar countdowns or paper chains.
In addition to parental deployments, military children become accustomed to moving. Those kids who have been raised their entire lives in an active-duty military family, will have moved an average of six to nine times between kindergarten and high school graduation. New community, new school, new activities and new friends put children in the place of needing to adjust quickly. In spite of these stresses, military children have noted traveling, living in different locales and meeting new people as benefits of military family life.
With many military children being elementary, middle or high school age, maintaining a quality education is of concern for military parents. While many military children are able to attend schools located on base/post or near a military installation, some attend public or private schools located far from a military installation where other students or staff may be unfamiliar with military life. Disruptions in formal education across different states/countries may result from relocation, with varying policy and educational requirements adding to the mix. The stress of regularly changing schools may be compounded for those children with needs for special educational services or accommodations.
In spite of (and sometimes because of) the aforementioned challenges, research has shown that military children tend to be healthy, well-adjusted, culturally savvy members of our communities.
Awareness & Creating Communities of Care: How Can We Better Support Military Kids?
While the above outlines a little information about military children and their general experience, awareness of this group is only the beginning in helping to maintain their overall well-being. In a call to action, Dr. Harold Kudler (Durham VAMC & Duke University) and Col. Rebecca I. Porter (U.S. Army), wrote about “Building Communities of Care for Military Children and Families” (2013). The aforementioned suggests the creation of a public health model that “looks beyond the clinical care of individual military children” and aspires to create care communities that “maximize resilience and minimize the health risks” faced by military children and their families. The writers present a strong case for how this goal might be achieved through a public health model that emphasizes enlightenment and disease prevention.
Essentially, in order for such communities of care to evolve, we must recognize that a care community is not based only on clinical services. Other community resources such as teachers, community leaders, coaches, pediatricians are important in caring for the military child. In order to build up communities of care that truly meet the needs of military families, we must be able to see, survey (screen), and support military children and their families.
In seeing, we mean gaining an awareness of who our military children are and what their experiences might be. Not unlike their parents, military children are often socialized to put the needs of others or their unit (i.e., family) before their own. They often do so willingly and nobly, which can lead to them becoming somewhat invisible. As many military experiences may be normalized to a military child, he or she may unknowingly disavow his or her related emotions. Talking about these experiences with a child may help to foster awareness for both the child and community helper. In many settings, it may be hard to recognize that a military child is even present, without asking.
We then need to survey or informally assess what a military child’s strengths and needs might be. In doing so, we build rapport and a relationship with the military child and family. Following needs recognition and assessment, we are encouraged to reach out and proactively offer resources that may be helpful to the family.
In providing support for our military children and families, we may now offer various military and civilian programs, virtual programs/online resources and community resources specifically designed to nurture and support military children, their families and the people who care for them. A few of these free, open-access resources are listed below:
Resources in Support of Military Children and Families:
Military One Source:
Military OneSource is a confidential DoD-funded program that provides comprehensive information on every aspect of military life at no cost to active-duty, National Guard and Reserve Service members and their families. In addition to website support, Military OneSource offers a confidential call center & online consultation, in addition to non-medical, short-term counseling for qualified individuals. Support is available 24 hours, seven days a week.
FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress):
FOCUS is a program created by UCLA and Harvard School of Medicine and now adopted by the U.S. Navy. It provides resiliency training to military children and their families. The program teaches skills to help families deal with deployment and other challenges related to military service. Over eight sessions, families engage in empirically supported skills training including goal setting, problem solving, communication and the creation of a shared family narrative to help with military life. FOCUS also provides a support App in the form of FOCUS On The Go (available for iOS or Android).
Military Kids Connect:
Available 24/7, this online community helps military children and teens (ages 6 to 17) feel connected and empowered to face and overcome obstacles unique to their young community. This interactive site contains videos of other kids sharing their personal stories and allows for communication with other military kids. Age-appropriate games and animated activities focused on the military child help to bide time and foster a sense of community in a child specific, kid-friendly way. The site also has parent & educator tracks that provide information to help adults understand what it takes to support military children at home and school.
Talk, Listen, Connect:
Noting that nearly 800,000 preschoolers are separated from a parent due to military service, this initiative has developed a bilingual (English/Spanish) program designed to help young children (ages 2-5) cope with difficult situations such as relocation, deployments, combat-related injuries, and the death of a loved one. Their products include DVDs & print resources, a website, and mobile apps, all presented with that Sesame Street appeal, which little ones love.
Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC):
The Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC)’s stated mission is “to ensure inclusive, quality educational experiences for all military-connected children affected by mobility, family separation, and transition.” MCEC connects students, parents, and professionals with military-specific resources including leadership programs, workshops designed to help parents advocate for their children’s educational and social needs, peer support programs and trained consultants to help with transitions between schools, and educational resources for professionals who work with military children. MCEC also publishes a magazine, “On the Move,” that is filled with valuable information for military families.
Blaisure, K.R., Saathoff-Wells, T., Pereira, A., Wadsworth, S.M., & Dombro, A.L. (2016). Serving military families: Theories, research, and application (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Cozza, S.J., & Lerner, R. M. (2013). Military children and families: Introducing the issue. Military Children and Families, 23(2), 3–11.
Easterbrooks, M.A., Ginsburg, K., & Lerner, R.M. (2013). Resilience among military youth. The Future of Children, 23(2), 99-120.
Human Resources Strategic Assessment Program, January 2011 Status of Forces Survey of Active Duty Members: Leading Indicators (Arlington, VA: Defense Manpower Data Center, 2011).
Kudler, H. & Porter, R.I. (2013). Creating communities of care for military children and families. Military Children and Families, 23(2), 163-185.
Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community & Family Policy. (2015). 2014 demographics profile of the military community.
Caitlin Cook is a DBHP at Tripler Army Med Center and the lucky mom of 3 wonderful military children.
Kimberly Copeland is a DBHP at Portsmouth Naval Hospital. She was a military kid who loves working with military children and families.