I wanted to kick off Military Family Appreciation Month by giving special recognition to all of the military children who support the military mission in more ways than they know. (Stay tuned for April, which is the Month of the Military Child) Did you know that the official flower of the military child is the dandelion? You may ask yourself, why a dandelion? Well, it was chosen in 1998 due to it representing various aspects of a military child’s life (militarybrat.com). Military children have to put down roots in many places and tend to bloom wherever the military takes them, surviving in a broad range of climates. Simply put, they are hardy! Just like the shape of a dandelion, military children tend to be well-rounded. They are exposed to a variety of people, experiences, and cultures. These experiences and exposure help to define military children and shape their identity, typically starting at a very young age.
To better understand who we are talking about, let’s first look at some data from the 2016 Demographics Profile of the Military Community (2017), which is the most recent year we have data for. When looking at the total Department of Defense (DoD) force (Active Duty, Reserve, and National Guard) there are a total of 1,715,519 military children DoD-wide! In fact, there are more family members (56.4%) than military personnel (43.6%). Approximately 41% of Service members have children (34.4% are married with children and 6.2% are single with children). Regarding age, 37.8% of military children are age 5 or younger, 31.6% are between the ages of 6 and 11, 23.8% are 12-18 years-old, and an additional 6.8% are 19-22 years old.
While much of the research about military children focuses on stressful experiences (e.g., parental deployment, family separation, etc.), research also suggests that on the whole, children adapt well to the military lifestyle. They are tolerant, adaptive, and resilient. We know that many military children are surrounded by a community with resources (e.g., access to health care, access to family support services, etc.) as well as rich traditions (e.g., celebrations, ceremonies, etc.) that can lead to an increased sense of belonging. However, as Cozza and Lerner (2013) discuss, we need to better understand the strengths and resilience of military children so that we are more prepared to meet their needs.
As a military family we experience military life up close and personal on a daily basis. Our son AJ is 8 years-old and has been a military child his entire life. He was born while I was still serving and his father/my spouse continues to serve. All he has ever known is the military way of life. I see the pride exuding from him when talking about being a military child, but I also see some of his more painful experiences. I asked AJ if he was open to sharing some of his thoughts and experiences regarding being a military child for this blog entry. Let me just say, he was more than excited to participate (as evidenced by the daily questioning of when we would begin).
When I asked AJ what it is like being a military child he shared, “It’s tough at times.” He also shared that other times are “very joyful and happy.” His advice to other military kids was to “Have fun…enjoy the experiences that you get to do and what other kids get to do all around the world.” When asked about his favorite thing about being a military child AJ replied, “Probably getting to move around and seeing all the different sites and cultures.” At the same time, when asked about some of the challenges of being a military child, AJ responded, “Having to move a lot…I mean, like every time you move you have to say good-bye to your old friends and make new friends, which can actually be quite challenging.”
Moving is a common occurrence for many people and has both up- and down-sides. It just so happens that military children move quite frequently and not always at the most opportune times. This means new neighborhoods, new friends, new schools, and sometimes even having to find new hobbies. On average, military children will attend six to nine different school systems between the time they enter kindergarten and the time they graduate high school (Department of Defense-State Liaison Office, 2010). When asked about one thing he has learned about making new friends at new locations AJ responded, “I have learned more about myself actually because all of the friends that I have had over the whole U.S. have taught me a different lesson each.” Even though frequent moves can be challenging, being exposed to different experiences and groups of people can help increase tolerance, adaptiveness, and responsibility, all of which can help round out the military child.
In addition to frequent moves, separation from family members is not uncommon. In the 2017 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey, “amount of time away from family” was the top rated concern for both military spouses and Service members with 40% reporting more than six months of family separation in the last 18 months. When asked what it is like being separated from a parent for an extended period of time AJ responded, “It is very sad…and you can’t really know how it feels until you have it happen because when I learned my dad was going to move away for a year I thought, ‘Oh, a year will go by fast’, but in that case a year went by longer.” AJ added in, “It kind of gave me, in a way, a good experience.” When asked more about this, he responded that “life sometimes has bumpy roads” and added, “and if you’re on a bumpy road, there’s no way to go around it…you just have to keep on going and I think that year kind of taught me something new about that.” That can be a tough lesson to learn, but can also play a role in building resiliency. And like dandelions, military children tend to be quite resilient.
Are you working with military children and families? Could you use more training on how to work with this population? Well, great news! The Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) is developing several trainings specific to military children. The first is a suite of webinars for educators focused on National Guard and Reserve-connected children (i.e., increasing cultural awareness, understanding their experiences, and learning how to support them). This training will consist of three 90-minute online modules that each targets a different age group/developmental phase (i.e., children who are in: 1) daycare or preschool, 2) kindergarten through 5th grade, and 3) 6th through 12th grade). CDP will also be developing a live 3-4 hour training for mental health providers on the impact of the military parent's exposure to trauma or other military-related stressors on the child and how to address this clinically.
CDP also has a series of workshops focused on working with military and Veteran couples. The four-part series covers the following topics: 1) Military and Veteran Couples: Elements of the Assessment Process; 2) Military and Veteran Couples: Evidence-Based Approaches to Treatment; 3) An Intervention Model for Working with Military Couples Who Have Experienced Infidelity; and 4) Intimate Partner Violence: An Overview of Assessment and Response with Military-Connected Couples. You can find more information about the Couples Webinar Series on the CDP website.
Additionally, the CDP is developing a Military Families Resource page on our website that will have a variety of resources for providers who are working with military children. We hope to have the resources page and trainings available in the second half of calendar year 2019. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to reach out to us with any questions you may have. The CDP is here to help providers better understand the military family and ways to support them.
CDP will be posting weekly blogs during the month of November that focus on military families. Be on the lookout next week when Dr. Erin Frick will be sharing information regarding Veterans Day and military families. The following week Dr. Marjorie Weinstock will be discussing military families and their connection to civilian communities. For our final topic in the series, April Thompson, LCSW will be writing about family communication during Service member deployment.
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.
Lisa French, Psy.D., is the Chief of Staff at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
Blue Star Families. (2017). 2017 annual military family lifestyle survey: Comprehensive report. Retrieved from https://bluestarfam.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/MFLS-ComprehensiveReport17-FINAL.pdf
Cozza, S. J. & Lerner, R. M. (2013). Military children and families: Introducing the issue. Future of Children, 23(2), 3-11.
Department of Defense-State Liaison Office. (2010). The interstate compact on educational opportunity for military children: An overview. Retrieved from https://www.dodea.edu/Partnership/upload/A-Letter-to-Parents.pdf
Military Brats Registry. (n.d.). The official military brat flower. Retrieved from http://www.militarybrat.com/dandelion.cfm
Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community & Family Policy. (2017). 2016 demographics profile of the military community. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense. Retrieved from http://www.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2016-Demographics-Report.pdf