Why designate a month to recognize military children? What makes them any more special than neighborhood civilian children? Improving awareness of military family life and its associated stresses and sacrifices broadens the knowledge base of those who interact with military children but who may be unfamiliar with the nature of the sacrifices made by military children. Undoubtedly, civilian children experience stresses and losses similar to those experienced by military children. Most civilian children, however, do not experience the range or frequency of losses and transitional stresses military children experience over the course of their childhoods. Thus, designating a month to recognize military children is not about military children being more special than civilian children, but about recognizing the role they play in supporting their military parent’s service to this nation. For this reason, the month of April has been designated as time to recognize that “Kids serve, too.”
Military Family Life
Since 1973, when military conscription terminated and gave rise to the all-volunteer force, there have been significant changes in military demographics. In their study of military family demographics, Clever and Segal (2013) noted the active duty workforce tends to be younger than the civilian workforce, service members marry and start families at younger ages than civilian couples, and active duty service members tend to remain married and have a lower divorce rate than that of civilian couples (at least until they separate from the service). Whether these patterns are due to the more conservative values of military service members or due to other factors unique to military culture is unknown as there are demographical differences between active duty personnel and National Guard and Reserve service members. These military groups tend to have children who are older. As noted by Clever and Segal (2013), many Guard and Reserve members spent time on active duty prior to enlistment in the Guard or Reserve so it is no surprise their children would be older than those of active duty personnel.
The younger active duty family demographics are not surprising either as military service provides a greater sense of stability in terms of greater job security and benefits, two factors often influencing civilian couples to delay starting a family. Without benefits and job security, it would be difficult for the Department of Defense to maintain and retain an all-volunteer force. The health risks involved in training and employing an operationally ready workforce necessitates a comprehensive benefits package, and retention of trained and experienced personnel helps offset dollars spent on a comprehensive benefits package.
Resiliency & Stress
Whether military or civilian, chronic daily stress can reduce an adult’s ability to effectively cope with difficult situations, and children often experience the negative effects of chronic daily stresses whether their own or vicariously through their parents. This is true especially for military children who are often called on to manage chronic daily stresses while experiencing the major disruptions deployment brings to family life and functioning (Aronson & Perkins, 2013; Lieberman & Van Horn, 2013). In no other conflict have troops and families been called on to transition multiple times from home to combat and back home again. Deployment tends to be a difficult period for military families creating problems and issues not normally experienced. These problems and issues are usually disruptive and stressful with the potential of reducing the service member’s ability to perform at peak efficiency, and that can put the soldier’s life at risk as well as the lives of others. There have been multiple studies documenting the stressful nature of military life and deployment on children and their parents (Aronson & Perkins, 2013; Clever & Segal, 2013; Lieberman & Van Horn, 2013; Wadsworth, 2013).
Despite the prevalence of repetitive multiple stresses challenging military children, studies also reference the resilience of military children (Clever & Segal, 2013; Lieberman & Van Horn, 2013; Masten, 2013; Moore, D. 2013; Osofsky & Chandler, 2013; Wadsworth, 2013). There are likely many factors working in concert to provide protective factors against stress and to mitigate stressful reactions when they occur. One such protective factor identified by Osofsky & Chartrand (2013) and Lieberman & Van Horn (2013) is that military children’s adaptability may be correlated with their sense of commitment to their country. This supposition is congruent with Clever and Segal’s (2013) identification of military service member conservative values which would likely be adopted to some degree by the family. Other mitigating factors include emotional stability of parents, particularly the nondeployed parent. Parents who are able to emotionally support and connect with their children are more likely to provide a supportive environment for children as they cope with the stresses of deployment and reintegration (Lester, et al. 2013; Osofsky & Chartrand, 2013). If parents have difficulty coping well throughout deployment and reintegration, it increases the probability their children will too, and when the family is struggling, soldiers find it difficult to remain fully focused on the mission. Therefore, it behooves the military and the Department of Defense to help military families prepare for and navigate this stressful period through preventive and supportive services. They have done a remarkable job towards identifying needs and mitigating barriers to receipt of services.
It would be remiss to not recognize the influential roles schools play in the life of children, whether a civilian child or a military child. Most military children attend schools in their local communities and usually attend many different schools prior to graduation (Clever & Segal, 2013). Moving among various public school systems or between a Department of Defense school and public school can present with numerous challenges. Since military families relocate an average of every two or three years, their children are challenged to adapt to different school systems with each relocation. This means they sit through lessons they have already completed at their old school or they may miss lessons altogether and yet still be accountable for the information on comprehensive tests, or they may find themselves with teachers or peers who are unfamiliar with military culture and who may even be biased against people affiliated with the military (Aronson & Perkins, 2013). This can subject a military child to bullying, stereotyping, or discrimination. Moving during the school year brings with it additional disruptions including multiple losses such as continued participation on school sports teams, involvement in social clubs, losses or changes in quality of friendships, and loss of or threat to educational opportunities and programs (Masten, 2013). Yet, despite the stresses and potential losses involved in relocations, there are military children and their families who also adopt a positive perception to moving and see it as a fresh opportunity to expand their circles of friendship and to learn more about the diverse nature of communities in the United States and abroad. Moving, though a lot of work, becomes a skill due to the frequency with which military families move. The upside of relocation is that it is usually related to remaining on the job rather than due to job loss or some other adverse employment event (Clever & Segal, 2013). Families who are moving due to death or injury of the service member contend with multiple demands that compete with and complicate the grieving process.
Other demands of military service that military children experience include their parent having to move to a new location prior to the family relocating thereby resulting in extended separations, parents may work unusual work schedules or many unanticipated hours without notice, secondary employment needed to ensure financial stability often is unavailable due to the transitory nature of military service, or having a parent who works in a war zone. Military families may live in foreign countries with unfamiliar customs and laws. As such, they are at risk of unwittingly offending a citizen of the host country. Parents and children are expected to observe high standards of conduct or the military parent will be held accountable by the community and the military (Clever & Segal, 2013). All of these scenarios potentially contribute to children’s stress or their resilience.
Impact of stress on child development
Numerous studies have examined the role of stress on children’s brain architecture and overall development. Stress, whether related to pleasant situations or unpleasant situations, impacts the body negatively over the long term. Having to adapt to situations and policies incongruent with values and beliefs is a familiar scenario to service personnel where the government dictates policy and the military is tasked with carrying it out. Military families and children are often vicariously affected when policies conflict with personal values and beliefs. Some military policies are known when service members enlist. Service members and their families know the military lifestyle is mobile and moving is nearly inevitable and will result in changing schools, moving from one house and community to another, and even the possibility of deployments and injury or death in the line of duty (Clever & Segal, 2013; Lieberman & Van Horn, 2013). Any of these situations has the potential of a child being parentified to meet one or more family member’s needs when a parent succumbs to stress. While there is nothing wrong with children stepping in occasionally for brief periods to help out in a difficult situation, there is a problem with children assuming the responsibilities of a parent to the extent they miss out on social and extracurricular opportunities that contribute to their social development. Home environments where the primary caregiver is unable to function tend to be environments characterized as chronically stressful. It is this type of environment that raises concern for the wellbeing of children. Environments of this nature have the potential of affecting children’s neural development, especially that of infants and young children (Lieberman & Van Horn, 2013; Osofsky & Chandler, 2013; Wadsworth, 2013). With support, the opportunities for parentification can be minimized.
Usually having a weekly paycheck is not a stressor common to military families. As long as Congress approves the defense budget, military families are relatively assured they will have a paycheck each month in the upcoming year. However, in recent years sequestration has affected the security of military paychecks raising concerns among service members and their families about meeting bills and providing for needs. Military members with less time in service are more likely to be adversely affected by sequestration. Unlike other jobs, military personnel still have to go to work regardless of whether they will be paid. They are unable to quit and seek other jobs and often their spouses’ earning potential and employability is adversely affected by frequent relocation. When the family’s finances are threatened by sequestration, children’s participation in enrichment and extracurricular opportunities are impacted and they may worry about their parents’ being able to meet survival needs such as food and shelter.
Mitigating stressful situations
Stressful situations are a fact of life. They can be managed and dealt with through healthy coping skills. One such important skills is healthy communications and parents who maintain developmentally appropriate communication with children about deployment and other stressful matters help children understand what to expect. Children realize it is okay to ask questions, seek clarification, and verbalize feelings about impending events. Accurate and developmentally appropriate conversations help children manage distortions and magical thinking. Not all parents, however, have good communication skills or understand the cognitive needs of their children. In these cases, support services can help parents structure developmentally appropriate conversations and provide suggestions for preparing children to cope more effectively with various phases of deployment and reintegration, including the potential for injury to or loss of the parent.
Although digital communications such as Skype have helped deployed parents remain engaged with their children, it is not foolproof and sometimes the designated communication time is interrupted by technological difficulties or emergent situations. Unanticipated disruptions to communications can create anxiety leaving family to worry about the safety of their loved one. Additionally, the timing of disrupted communications can be problematic when children are trying to talk about situations and problems they are experiencing. The result can be the child being left frustrated or emotionally shut down.
As mentioned earlier, most children are able to navigate the usual stresses of the military lifestyle. They may experience difficulty in anticipation of deployment, during deployment, and after deployment when the service member reenters the family. This has come to the attention of governmental agencies and the Department of Defense is recognizing more fully the impact of war on soldiers and their families. As such, the Department of Defense has authorized programs to help children and families cope with the stresses of military life and deployments. Some of these programs provide nonmedical counseling services with complete confidentiality in hopes service members and their families will seek services before problems become medically significant. Although they do not don a military uniform each day, children are part of military families and are affected by military policies. As such, the month April is a time to recognize military children for the many ways they contribute to the well being of their service member parents and to thank them for their contributions. After all, kids serve too!
Aronson, K. R., & Perkins, D. F. (2013). Challenges faced by military families: Perceptions of united states marine corps school liaisons. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22(4), 516-525. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10826-012-9605-1
Clever, M., & Segal, D. R. (2013). The demographics of military children and families. The Future of Children, 23(2) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1519284020?accountid=36783
Lester, P., M.D., Stein, J. A., PhD., Saltzman, W., PhD., Woodward, K., L.C.S.W., MacDermid, S. W., PhD., Milburn, N., PhD., . . . Beardslee, W., M.D. (2013). Psychological health of military children: Longitudinal evaluation of a family-centered prevention program to enhance family resilience. Military Medicine, 178(8), 838-45. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1427436964?accountid=36783
Lieberman, A. F., & Van Horn, P. (2013). Infants and young children in military families: A conceptual model for intervention. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16(3), 282-93. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10567-013-0140-4
Masten, A. S. (2013). Competence, risk, and resilience in military families: Conceptual commentary. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16(3), 278-81. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10567-013-0150-2
Moore, D. (2013, Jan. 8). The resiliency of the military child. The Veterans United Network. Retrieved from http://www.veteransunited.com/spouse/the-resiliency-of-the-military-child/
Osofsky, J. D., & Chartrand, M. (2013). Military children from birth to five years. The Future of Children, 23(2) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1519283863?accountid=36783
Wadsworth, S. M. (2013). Understanding and supporting the resilience of a new generation of combat-exposed military families and their children. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16(4), 415-20. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10567-013-0155-x