At Fors Marsh Group, we’ve long supported and conducted research with military service members throughout the military career lifecycle – from new recruits, to current active duty and reserve component service members, to service members transitioning back to civilian life. At each stage of their journey, there is one constant that remains, and that is family. This April marks the 30th anniversary of the Month of the Military Child, which seeks to recognize the contributions and sacrifices made by the youngest members of our nation’s military community. There are nearly 2 million U.S. military children, including over 1.1 million children of Active Duty service members and 700,000 children of Reserve Component service members. Approximately 37% of military children are age 5 and under, 31% are 6 to 11 years of age, 24% are 12 to 18 years of age, and 7% are 19 to 22 years of age (though children over the age of 20 must be full-time students in order to qualify as dependents; Source: 2014 DoD Demographics Report).
As one 5th grader from Wisconsin so eloquently stated in her poem, posted to her school’s Facebook page , ‘these children may not wear the uniform, but they serve, too.’ Military children have unique perspectives and experiences, and also face unique challenges. Military children move six to nine times, on average, during their primary through secondary school years. This is three times more than children in non-military families. Military children also experience the stressors of parental separation, family reunification, and parental reintegration into civilian society. It’s important for all of us – from the organizational to the individual level, to seize every opportunity to support those ‘serving’ at such a young age.
Mental health considerations for military children
I worked with several military children during my training as a clinical psychologist. Much can be said about the complex ways that temperament and the social environment shape children’s behavior, and this is no different in military families. Military children react in different ways to the stressors of military life, depending on their age, developmental stage, personality, and social support system.
- Internalizing Problems – For some children, stressors can contribute to an increase in internalizing problems, which include feelings of anxiety, worry, and sadness. Children who experience internalizing problems may become socially withdrawn and less interested in activities that they usually enjoy. Internalizing problems can also manifest in physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, changes in appetite, and difficulty sleeping. In more extreme cases, children may develop depression or an anxiety disorder that requires treatment by a mental health professional.
- Externalizing Problems– In contrast to internalizing problems, some children develop externalizing problems in response to stressors. These problems can include acting out, defiance, rule-breaking, and aggression. It is important to recognize that such behaviors do not mean that the child is “bad” and in need of harsh punishment. Rather, these behaviors are a way that some children react to stressful situations that they cannot control. When externalizing problems interfere with school and family life, it is important to enlist the support of a mental health professional.
- Keep the Lines of Communication Open. Children are naturally curious, and military children generally have many questions and concerns about their parent’s military service. It is common to tell children “Don’t worry, everything will be fine!” and for adults to put on a happy face in hopes of preventing worry. However, children then look to other sources (such as friends at school, social media, or their own imagination) for the answers to their questions and concerns, and these answers will often be inaccurate. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s natural to feel worried, and that the military parent or non-military parent at home might feel worried too. This allows the child to feel comfortable sharing their concerns with their parents rather than feeling the need to suppress these concerns. When families are able to openly discuss worries and concerns, they can work together to identify healthy coping strategies.
- Build Traditions and Routines. Having a predictable sense of home base allows children the freedom to explore and grow. For military families, creating a consistent sense of home can require some extra creativity when faced with some of the unpredictable aspects of military life. Setting up family routines and traditions can help to create consistency during transitions. Even something as simple as maintaining a consistent Tuesday Pizza and Movie Night (that continues whether a parent is deployed or not) is a great way to build continuity. Other ways to increase predictability include having a weekly scheduled skype call with grandparents or other family members, keeping a consistent bedtime routine, and creating a family tradition around a less commonly celebrated holiday (such as a creating a family tradition for the Month of the Military Child!).
- Foster Resilience. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is important to keep in mind for military families. Consulting a mental health professional and/or community-based support service prior to a parent’s deployment, return from deployment, or an upcoming move can be very helpful for easing the transition. Families shouldn’t wait for a child to exhibit significant problems before reaching out, every child can benefit from resiliency-building activities. Even one or two meetings with a Military OneSource counselor can go a long way toward fostering healthy coping during a transition.
How can you support Military children?
Military children are a special part of our nation’s military community. Their needs have drawn the attention of First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Jill Biden, who have spearheaded the Joining Forces Initiative in order to raise awareness about the service, sacrifice, and needs of military families. As part of this initiative, Dr. Jill Biden has recently called for more research on military children. At Fors Marsh Group, we support this initiative whole heartedly and agree that, through greater understanding, our organizations, schools, and families can provide the best resources for supporting the healthy development of every military child.
- Military Kids Connect: a website for children and teens that includes games, resources for coping, and ways to connect with other military children. www.militarykidsconnect.dcoe.mil
- Military OneSource: a great resource for all types of questions about military family life. www.militaryonesource.mil