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Understanding and Supporting Military Families & Children

How to Support Military Families & Children

For over a decade we've been engaged in significant military conflict. Our national attention toward these conflicts has ebbed and flowed as we have gotten used to this as a new normal. But, for military families, the new reality is never far from their mind. For these families, talking to children about war and other military conflicts is not a one-time thing and they have more than their fair share of stress. Despite everything military families go through, often with less than adequate resources, they often rise to the occasion and show tremendous resilience. There is a lot the larger community can do to support military families and children and also a lot to learn from them.

Military Families: Different and the Same

Of course, every military family life is different. A family living on an installation on active duty is different than a family in the National Guard living in a civilian community. And, just like all other families, military families have their own unique values, cultures, customs, and preferences. But most military families know what it's like to live with worry each day; to be separated from one another for long periods of time; to change living arrangements, jobs, and more with short notice. They also know that camouflage is not just a fashion statement, dog tags have a real purpose, and that nothing should be taken for granted.

The Emotional Cycle of Deployment

Deployment refers to the strategic movement of military forces, but in a military family it means a time when the service member has to leave the family for an extended period. There are a few distinct phases with common - although, not universal - emotions.

  • Pre-deployment: This is the period of time from the moment the family knows about a deployment until it occurs. It can be months, weeks, or days. Emotions run high within the military family during pre-deployment; families are often torn between wanting to spend every moment enjoying each other, anxious about the upcoming deployment and potential dangers, and just wanting to get it started to get it over with. This is also a time when military parents may have to start explaining deployment to children if this is new to the family.
  • Deployment: This is the period of time after the service member first departs and is often the hardest phase for military families and children. Routines are changing - there's a new carpool or school pick up schedule; the parent at home has more to do and more on his/ her mind; and everyone misses the deployed family member.
  • Sustainment: Things get a little easier in this phase for military families. New routines are established, everyone has adjusted, and many family members start to feel a sense of, "I can do this!"
  • Re-deployment: This is the month or so before the deployed family member returns. Stress returns as everyone begins to wonder about how each other has changed and what to expect when the service member returns.
  • Post deployment: This is the phase after the service member returns. There is usually a lot of excitement and enthusiasm at the start and then challenges as routines switch again and each military family member tries to work together despite having gone through life changing experiences independent of each other. On average, it takes about a month of time at home for every month deployed to fully adjust. 

How to Support & Help Military Families 

All of us know a military-connected child or family who has connections to the military through a parent, sibling, or relatives. It's important to note that children and families can be impacted by the military without being in a traditional "military family." Whether it's through relatives, friends, someone in the community, or a neighbor, there are a few things we can all do to support and help the military families and children around us.

  • Offer concrete and specific help to family members that stay behind. Instead of, "Let me know how I can help," offer specifics such as, "I can mow your lawn once a month," or, "I can help for two hours on Saturday. How should we use that time?"
  • Let the military family guide conversations about military related topics. The news of conflict overseas can often cause stress and worry. Be mindful of the TV, newspaper, magazines, or conversations that can reinforce worry. At the same time, pretending political or military conflict is not happening isn't healthy either.
  • Treat them like a normal family. Military families need a break from thinking about the military. Just because dad is deployed, doesn't mean you can't still invite them on a family vacation; just because mom is overseas doesn't mean they won't want to celebrate the holidays.
  • Offer thanks. Being in the military is not lucrative and it's not easy, but military families are proud of who they are. Whether you believe in the current military strategy or approach, saying thank you to a young service member, or a mother at home alone with young children, recognizing that what they go through is intended to be a sacrifice for all of us, can make a world of difference.
  • Remember that children living in a constant state of stress can be adversely affected. If you see continuous signs of stress on the family or unhealthy behavior from military families (i.e. mom leaving kids home alone, dad getting very angry easily, etc.), make sure you address the issue in a proactive and positive way. Sometimes the parent or caretaker at home needs help. Children need us to be mindful of that and to step in when needed.
  • Welcome military families or children to your community. Military families often have to move and cope with change: schools, sports teams, friends, houses, and more. Each person who interacts with a child in a military family can make it easier by asking, "What are you used to?" or "How did you do it before?" rather than expecting them to always change and conform. Go out of your way to welcome a military family or child to your community. Include them in activities, invitations, and events.
What We Can Learn from Military Families

Military families are required to be more versatile than most other families. Think about it - many people feel stress when their spouse is out of town for a week, let alone a year. For most, it seems unthinkable to have to miss your child's birthday or even birth, but military families cope with these challenges on a regular basis. There is a lot to learn about resilience and how to handle change and challenge from the many military families around us.

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