April is the Month of the Military Child. Rightly, a time to say, “Thank you for your service too” and recognize the unique challenges these children face. Millions of military children been affected by at least one parent leaving and returning from war or other types of deployment. These children may have one parent who deploys frequently, while the family remains at a large military base. Others may have never experienced a deployment before. The families of National Guardsmen or Reservists and their families may have never have been linked to a military installation. While military children have many different experiences, they share many common bonds and face the unique stresses and challenges of military life.
The war on terror has been raging since terrorists brought down the World Trade Center in 2001. Since that terrible day, America has fought terrorism across the globe. The United States deployed more than 2.7 million troops in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Operation New Dawn (OND) and Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) in the aftermath of 9/11. Of those, nearly half of the US military forces were parents, and half of those parents have served more than one combat tour of duty.
From a military standpoint, the war on terror has been largely successful. But with each victory, a new threat has seemed to emerge. Now, 16+ years later, the war on terror looks no closer to finishing. In fact, by the end of 2108, we could have more than 16,000 troops back in Afghanistan according to the Associated Press.
The evidence of the increasing toll this prolonged war has taken on military personnel and their families continues to grow. So much so, that the physical and emotional health of United States military members and their families has become a priority for our country. The costs of war on the spouses, parents, children, and friends of military personnel continue to mount as they cope with their loved ones’ absence, mourn their deaths, or greet the changed person who often returns. In particular, how do these costs affect military children and those of us taking care of them?
In 2011, Former President and Mrs. Obama announced their commitment that the care and support of military families was a top national security policy priority. That commitment should be at the forefront of our minds each and every day – even 7 years later.
Decades of research support the notion and detail the distinctive challenges faced by military members and their families. These challenges include:
- Financial burdens
- Frequent moves and relocation
- Isolation from family, friends, and relatives
- Long family separations related to military training or deployments
The consequences of these stresses on children can include:
- Behavior problems
- School difficulties
- Alcohol and drug use
One could argue that these are the same challenges faced by military families since World War II.
Modern warfare has added an additional challenge for military members and their families with advanced technologies in combat equipment, rapid evacuation from the battlefield and advancements in battlefield medicine have contributed to historically high deployment survival rates.
As a result, the challenges facing military families have evolved. More military members have returned from a combat deployment with traumatic brain injury (TBI), severe physical trauma (including loss of limb and spinal cord injuries), and mental health disorders (depression and post-traumatic stress disorder). It is estimated that more than 30% of returning military members have experienced PTSD, depression, and/or traumatic brain injury. Dealing with multiple physical and or mental health issues, such as aggression and alcohol misuse, are prevalent in up to half of those with impairment.
There has also been an increase in the rates of suicide among military personnel. As a result, some military children and their families are now experiencing ongoing clinically significant emotional and/or behavioral symptoms as they learn to cope with their parent’s injuries. But, remember, just as there is no one type of military family, there is also no one type of family response to deployment, loss or trauma. There are, however, trends in how military families adjust to the unique challenges they face.
Military Kids Serve Too!
The Emotional Cycle of Deployment describes the emotional stress experienced within each deployment event. During each of the seven stages, a state of disequilibrium persists. The cycle begins with notification of an upcoming deployment and lasts throughout the post-deployment reunion and reintegration periods. Resilience appears to play a major factor in all stages of deployment.
Overall, studies indicate protective factors, including family readiness, “meaning making” of the situation, receipt of community, acceptance of military lifestyle, and adoption of flexible gender roles. Additionally, at least 5 years of marriage, higher education, and a civilian spouse working outside the home may contribute to stronger family resilience during deployments.
But what about the children?
Most commonly, children experience separation as loss. Fear and chronic anxiety have been shown to disrupt the developing architecture of the brain. Children and even adolescents watch closely for parental cues to gauge their own degree of distress in a given situation. “Military children are a very resilient group of people,” said Barbara A. Thompson, the director of DoD’s Office of Family Readiness Policy.
“I’m not underestimating what it takes for a military child to move every two or three years – it means a new home, new neighborhood, new friends and a new school. Those are challenges. It takes a supportive environment that begins with the parents and then the whole community to support the military children to help them get through those difficult times of reaching out and becoming a part of that community as a new military child.”
The literature supports the notion that children in military families experience more physical and mental health problems – including anxiety, depression, behavior problems, psychosomatic symptoms, suicidal ideation/behavior, and substance abuse when compared to their non-military peers. These mental and emotional stressors may also cause sleep difficulties and school failure. In addition, the remaining parent or primary caregiver experiences heightened stressors during deployments which may result in increased incidences of child maltreatment.
Geez, is there any good news? A light at the end of the tunnel?
Yes! The military community has many programs and supports in place to provide resources to help families with deployment-related stress. These resources are diverse and focus primarily on prevention services for families and children of all ages. The child’s primary care provider is also a source of support and can help families find the resources they need to get through a deployment and beyond. You may be wondering if there are any specific resources or intervention to help children cope with a deployment or deployment-related stresses.
The answer is yes! Resources include:
- Our Military Kids – Supports children of deployed National Guard and Reserve service members
- United Through Reading – Connects military families who are separated for deployment or military assignment
- Freedom Alliance – Care for the families of fallen with college scholarships
- Operation Homefront – Building strong, stable and secure military families so they can thrive
“It is perhaps ironic that in a world that seems to be increasingly encouraging the development of technologies to make our lives easier, an obvious answer to many of our problems may be literally staring us in the face…or sitting on our lap”
– Sophie Hall
Additionally, more than two decades of research into the physical and psychological benefits of the human-animal bond suggest that pets can promote physical and mental health. I’ll let our resident canine-therapy expert Dr. O take it from here!
Pets can foster feelings of well-being and promote greater emotional stability, especially during times of stress. Having a family pet reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation and increases feelings of connection to a larger community. Pet attachment shows promise in helping protect against suicidal ideation in teenagers. For military youth with a deployed parent, initial studies have suggested that emotional attachment to a pet is associated with a better ability to cope with stress. This particular type of intervention may be well suited to the military child as a pet is readily available and provides private comfort without the stigma attached to mental health services.
What Can You Do?
Taking care of America’s military children helps strengthen the health, safety, and security of our nation’s families and communities. No child should have to face these challenges. And so many are truly brave and show amazing resilience.
You can help give children the supportive environment they deserve by supporting their parents and community efforts. Supporting military children will help them through those difficult times so they can thrive. Oh, and don’t forget to thank them for their service too!