Military Children Serve, Too

Ms. Mattea LeWitt

Serving in the military is more than just a job. It’s a way of life. And it affects the entire family. After more than 16 years into our longest war, many military families are growing weary.

For the first time in years, the top concern reported in the latest Military Family Life Survey was not pay and benefits, but troops’ time away. This annual report by Blue Star Families, which includes responses from both service members and spouses, also revealed that other worries about family appear to be increasing, with “impact of deployment on children” and “military child education” ranking among top issues for the first time in the history of the survey. It should not come as a surprise, then, that the number one reason reported for leaving the military (other than retirement) was “concern about the impact of military service on family”.

Clearly, military members are feeling the stress of repeated, prolonged periods of high operations tempos. And they are worried about their children.

Since 9/11, more than 2.77 million service members have served on 5.4 million deployments. About half of these service members had children at the time of deployment, and these military children are young. According to DoD, 74% of Active Force children are ages 11 and under and 75% of Reserve Forces children are younger than 15.

Deployments are reliably named by families as the most stressful event they experience as a result of military involvement. Research has shown that children of deployed military personnel have more school-, family-, and peer-related emotional difficulties compared with national samples, and cumulative lengths of deployments are associated with increased emotional difficulties for military children.

Of course, deployments are not the only challenge. Troops are regularly away from their families for various trainings, exercises, and other Temporary Duty Assignments (TDYs), and relocations, or Permanent Changes of Station (PCS), are a common stressor with the average military child relocating 6-9 times between kindergarten and high school, roughly triple than the national average.

We know that these constant transitions and separations are stressful, and with less than 0.5% of the US population serving in the Armed Forces, only a small percentage of the country is carrying a large burden alone.

What we can we do – as providers, educators, community members – to better support our military families?

 

Ask about military/veteran status for the individual/family.

Remember, military family members are our neighbors, too! At the Cohen Clinic in Philadelphia, we sit in the state that has the 4th largest population of reserve forces.

  • This include a large National Guard presence just outside of Philadelphia area, and also close proximity to major installation – JBMDL in South Jersey.
  • PA also has one of densest veteran populations, with nearly half of these veterans reporting a child in the household.
  • Use inclusive questions to identify if there is someone in the household who is serving or has served in the military. Consider adding these questions to intake/registration paperwork in healthcare or education settings.

Recognize common reactions in military children

Knowing the military families around us may lend more understanding to common issues or responses of military children. With an all-volunteer force (and only 0.5% of the population serving in the Armed Forces), military children are less likely to have shared experiences with civilian children and families than in previous eras. Common challenges among military children include:

  • Academic or behavioral issues in response to deployments, moves, or losses
  • Missing friends, family, and community
  • Feeling lonely or left out
  • Possible academic issues (gaps in learning, problems with transfer of records)

Use a strengths-based approach.

Military families are incredibly resilient and military culture is driven by a “warrior ethos”, which is, across branches, a code of conduct that emphasizes strength and courage. The warrior ethos often becomes embedded as part of a family’s values and is important to consider when working with children, service members, and veterans alike. Tips:

  • Avoid asking about the details of combat experience casually.
  • Some families identify more strongly with military/veteran culture than others.
  • Not all military families are the same. Different family constellations include a father and mother, two fathers, two mothers, single parent families, grandparents or other relatives raising children, and so forth.
  • Pay attention to holidays, events, and campaigns that support the military and veterans.
  • Learn the lingo! There are many specific terms that are part of military culture.

Refer to resources that have specific expertise in serving veterans and military families

Be familiar with local organizations that serve veterans and military families. For example, the Cohen Veterans Network is a national organization of military family clinics. These behavioral health clinics are specifically designed to serve the entire military family and all staff – both clinical and administrative –  complete focused training in military cultural competence.

 

Ms. Mattea LeWitt is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania where she provides therapy, assessment, and case management for individuals, children, and families. She specializes in helping people with trauma, depression, anxiety, family and relationship difficulties, stress, adjustment issues, and other behavioral health challenges. Ms. LeWitt received her Master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and practices from a strengths-based, holistic approach focused on health, mindfulness, and resilience.