In last week’s blog, Caitlin Cook and Kimberly Copeland provided a thoughtful and comprehensive introduction to the military child. The authors chose to examine military children from a cultural (strengths-based) perspective rather than a clinical or pathological view. In keeping with this strengths-based theme, and in continuing our recognition of April as the “Month of the Military Child”, this week’s entry highlights some of the often-overlooked benefits of growing up as a military child.
Although I am not the child of a military parent myself, I had the good fortune to become part of a military family when I married my husband nearly 10 years ago. As I described in a previous blog about navigating deployment as a blended family, I also became the proud step-parent to three children, all born and raised while their father was serving in the military. Between the three, they have lived in five different locations around the world and attended more than a dozen different schools. They have said good-bye to their Service member parent on multiple occasions for long stretches of time and experienced the celebration and stress of reintegration upon his return. Their experiences are typical of the majority of military children, particularly those growing up in the post 9/11 era.
It would be easy to assume that a childhood marked by so many challenges would result in individuals with a litany of issues, destined to pay for their military childhood with an uneasy or unhappy adulthood. This is the perspective often portrayed by the media, and to a lesser extent, in the scientific literature on military families and children. While the challenges associated with this lifestyle are difficult to refute, it is important also to note the potential for growth and benefits within this population. A failure to recognize the positive attributes of military children is a common complaint of many within the field, although this may be changing as researchers turn their focus more to the resilience of this population. In a piece on resilience in military children, Easterbrook and colleagues (2013) argue that the experiences of a military child may actually convey opportunities for enhanced relationships, greater self-confidence, and a variety of adventures and personal growth.
There is substantial evidence that military children DO excel in certain areas as a result of their experiences, both within the limited literature on the topic as well as in the everyday life experiences of military families. In reaching out to our fellow military families and friends while working on this piece, two relevant opportunities for growth came up multiple times: frequent relocation and parental deployment. Although these two areas represent some of the most commonly-cited stressors of military life, they also appear to be two of the experiences that foster the greatest opportunities for growth and resilience in the military child.
The frequent relocation associated with military life may present challenges to the military child across multiple fronts, including school and relationships. Despite these challenges, multiple surveys and studies of military children have reported that they typically function as well as or better than civilian children in the areas of academic achievement, peer relationships, and general well-being (Park, 2011). Research also suggests that a majority of parents report a positive influence of relocation on child development and behavior and that this positive effect increases with the number of moves (Weber & Weber, 2005). This general sentiment reflecting the positive effects of relocation was echoed in our family’s experience and in my conversations with fellow parents of military children. Raquel, the wife of a recent military retiree and mother to three sons who all grew up as military children, emphasized some of the benefits of relocation: “One of the positives of military moves and new schools is the sense of being in the same boat… It seemed like every military [child] knew how it felt to be the new kid on base, so they'd go out of their way to be nice... I was proud of [my son] Aidan when he went out of his way to befriend a new boy who transferred to his school this year. When I asked him why, he just smiled and said ‘I was once that kid’." These themes of greater tolerance and an increased likelihood of befriending others also are supported in the literature as being common positive attributes of military children (Park, 2011).
Amongst our fellow military families, international assignments were viewed particularly positively for the unique opportunities and skills that experiencing a new culture and a new language present to military children. Just within our circle of military friends, we have experienced tours in Japan, Italy, Germany, and Great Britain and many families have embraced the opportunity to live off base and send their children to local schools. My children, now many years removed from their time in Okinawa, still regularly recount stories of their childhood there, their great respect for the native culture, and their strong desire to return to the island one day. I attribute a significant portion of their openness and interest in embracing a diversity of friends and cultures to their international experiences during these formative years.
The second resilience-building area recognized in the literature and by the parents of military children was the deployment of a parent. There is substantial evidence for the potential challenges and negative consequences of deployment for children, and I do not want to minimize the importance of these findings. But it is important also to recognize the opportunities for growth that are presented to children during a deployment. As with relocation, the literature also reports that parents say that military children tend to be more responsible, independent, and proud when confronted by a parental deployment (Hall, 2008). These sentiments were similarly endorsed by military parents when asked directly about their children’s responses to deployments. Taressa, wife of an active-duty Service member and mother to two teenage boys shared a specific example from her husband’s deployment last year. When confronted with an increasingly tense situation with a neighbor, she described how her boys stepped up and worked with her to solve the problem in their father’s absence. In reflecting on this experience, among many others during her husband’s countless deployments and underways, Taressa noted “The military lifestyle has helped me create empathic kids. They truly understand how stressful life can be”. Such experiences and sentiments are consistent with findings in the literature that suggest military children display a greater sense of responsibility, resourcefulness, and adaptability as a result of their military experiences (Hall, 2008). Taressa’s pride in her sons’ helpfulness, maturity, and resilience during difficult times was echoed by all of the military parents who spoke with me.
It is not possible to provide a comprehensive perspective on the experiences and strengths of military children in a short blog entry. My goal with this piece though was to remind our readers that the unique experiences of military children, while often difficult and challenging, are also great opportunities for growth and resilience. Both the literature and military parents agree that the strengths of military children are many, a fact that deserves to be recognized and celebrated. As behavioral health providers who may be working with military families, please consider taking the time to talk to military parents and military children about these benefits and the importance of recognizing them in their own families.
Special thanks to the military parents who took the time to provide thoughtful answers to all of my questions!
Jennifer M. Phillips is the program evaluator for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. In this capacity, she coordinates and carries out program evaluation efforts to assess the progress and effectiveness of EBP trainings and other CDP programs.
Easterbrook, M.A., Ginsburg, K., & Lerner, R.M. (2013). Resilience among military youth. The Future of Children, 23(2), 99-120.
Hall, L.K. (2008). Counseling military families: What mental health professionals need to know. New York, NY: Routledge.
Park, N. (2011). Military children and families: Strengths and challenges during peace and war. American Psychologist, 66(1), 65-72.
Weber, E.G., & Weber, D.K. (2005). Geographic relocation frequency, resilience, and military adolescent behavior, Military Medicine, 170(7), 638-642.