Staff Perspective: Learning from Military Family Resilience During COVID-19

Staff Perspective: Learning from Military Family Resilience During COVID-19

Dr. Marjorie Weinstock

In a previous blog post, I talked about how resilience has become an important topic in the military family literature. In fact, we actually talk quite a bit about military family resilience in our CDP training events. We know that Service members and their families are generally very resilient, and they tend to adjust well to the challenges that are a normative part of military life (such as frequent moves, separations, long working hours, and having a loved one in a potentially dangerous job).

Family resilience is also a topic that my colleagues and I have discussed a great deal over the past few months in regards to the current pandemic. So, my interest was piqued when I recently ran across an article by Dr. Heather Prime and colleagues in American Psychologist focusing on how to encourage family resilience in the wake of COVID-19-related stressors. One of the first things I noticed was that the conceptual framework that they use is very similar to the one we describe when talking about military family resilience in our training events.

This framework is based on Froma Walsh’s family resilience theory, one of the more well-known models in the broader family resilience literature. According to this theory, there are three processes that are key to family resilience: 1) a family’s shared belief system; 2) organizational patterns; and 3) communication. Generally speaking,

  • a family’s belief system includes their ability to make meaning of crisis situations, their capacity to maintain a positive outlook, their sense of spirituality;
  • organizational patterns refer to the ability to be adaptive and maintain connectedness with others; and
  • communication encompasses clear sharing of information, the ability to express emotions, and engagement in collaborative problem-solving.

When we talk about military family resilience during CDP trainings, we also discuss the results of a 2015 RAND report, Family resilience in the military: Definitions, models, and policies, which expands this list of resilience factors to include a family’s support system and the physical and psychological health of individual family members.

Prime and colleagues (2020) did a literature review on a number of different topics relevant to the current pandemic (e.g., natural and man-made disasters, economic recessions, and living in poverty) to look at how adversity impacts family well-being and child adjustment. In their article, they focus on two of these resilience processes in particular: the building and maintaining of family relationships, and the optimization of family belief systems in order to provide a framework from which to understand stressful situations related to the current pandemic.

One of the things they emphasize is the idea of “making meaning,” which is something that is particularly salient in regards to military families. A military family’s ability to assign meaning and purpose to those normative military family stressors mentioned above helps to strengthen the development of a “military family” identity. And in turn, embracing this identity supports a sense of belonging and connection to a broader community with shared values and goals. The more that these families are able to find meaning in stressful life events and have confidence that family members can face adversity with positive outcomes, the more resilient they will be. This same concept can be applied when thinking about the current pandemic. As noted in the article, families will experience the highest levels of resilience when they’re able to “make sense” of COVID-19-related stressors – either by incorporating them into their existing worldview, or by modifying their views in such a way as to promote “health, togetherness, and a sense of coherence” (Prime et al. 2020, p.639). In other words, the more that families are able to view themselves as “being in it together,” the more resilient they will be.

When discussing military family resilience, we also talk about how family organization strategies help to establish a predictable base from which these families can more flexibly navigate military lifestyle stressors. Examples of this include things such as family cohesion (working well together as a family team), flexibility (having the ability to change and adapt as a family), and engaging in family rituals (that help create that shared meaning mentioned above). Again, the more of these characteristics that families have, the more resilient they’ll be. Prime and colleagues (2020) also found that close family relationships can help families endure stressful circumstances such as those experienced as a result of the current pandemic. We also know from the military family literature that social support is very important for family resilience. This includes not just support from immediate close friends and family, but support from the broader community as well (such as extended family, co-workers, neighbors, the faith-based community, and the military unit). Similarly, Prime et al. noted that close relationships, including those beyond the immediate family, have a protective effect.

So how do we best utilize this information identifying key strategies that have been linked to family resilience? While normative military family stressors are obviously not identical to the pandemic-related challenges many families are currently facing, perhaps we can leverage these conceptual similarities when thinking of how to be of help.

One of the other things Prime et al. (2020) noted was that caregivers (parents and/or guardians) act as a “funnel through which social disruptions infiltrate the family.” (p. 632). Or in other words, as we say when we talk about military families, “as goes the parent, so goes the child.” Thus, an emphasis on the mental health and well-being of caregivers is an important area of focus.

Additionally, I believe that strategies that have been found to be helpful when building and/or strengthening military family resilience can be beneficial in today’s current social context as well. Some examples include:

  • Communication and problem-solving training, which can strengthen resilience by helping families learn how to resolve problems and maintain closeness
  • Cognitive-behavioral skills, which can help families learn to both recognize faulty or unproductive ways of thinking and acting, and develop alternative thoughts and behaviors to promote positive family interactions
  • Mind-body skills (e.g., mindfulness, relaxation), which can strengthen family members’ ability manage stress and intense emotions
  • Building on strengths by identifying positive coping strategies that families have used to manage difficult situations in the past

As Prime and colleagues (2020) note, families who can maintain closeness despite heightened family stress will likely display greater resilience during this unprecedented time.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D., is a Senior Military Behavioral Health Psychologist for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences at Bethesda, Maryland.

Meadows, S. O., Beckett, M. K., Bowling, K., Golinelli, D., Fisher, M. P., Martin, L. T., Meredith, L.S., & Osilla, K. C. (2015). Family resilience in the military: Definitions, models, and policies. RAND Corporation.
Prime, H., Wade, M., & Browne, D. T. (2020). Risk and resilience in family well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. American Psychologist, 75(5), 631-643.
Walsh, F. (2006). Strengthening family resilience (2nd ed). Guilford Press.