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Children’s well-being contributes immeasurably to force readiness

Image of Military personnel wearing face mask in the back of a truck. Click to open a larger version of the image. Members from all different squadrons on Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, came together to put on a parade for the children on base April 30, 2020. April is Month of the Military Child throughout the military (Photo by: Air Force Airman 1st Class Helena Owens, 36th Wing Public Affairs).

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Military service members are not the only ones serving their country. Their families – especially their children – do so as well, showing resilience, support, and strength.

In April, the Department of Defense celebrates military children for their essential role in the force's readiness – and the Defense Health Agency joins in that celebration with its "Celebrating the Mighty" campaign.

"Military kids are the cornerstone of military families worldwide," said Kelly Blasko, who has a doctorate in counseling psychology and is the DHA's Connected Health Branch lead for mobile health clinical integration. "Helping ensure their health and mental well-being enables military parents to focus on serving the country."

Patti Johnson has a doctorate in clinical psychology, specializing in pediatrics, and supports the DHA's Behavioral Health Clinical Management Team.

"Military children and youth show their resilience each day by making sacrifices small and large in support of the mission success of their service member parent," she said. "Their health and well-being contribute immeasurably to the readiness of the force."

Challenges: Glass half full

Military children face unique challenges, including psychological challenges related to military life, explained Blasko.

However, Johnson said, they also experience relatively unique events in comparison to their non-military peers that can positively impact their development and functioning.

"Military kids are more likely to move multiple times during their grade-school years and have a parent absent for long periods of time in potentially dangerous locations," said Blasko. "Unfortunately, they also may learn about difficult topics like injury or death at an early age, but they tend to also learn how to function well in stressful situations."

Though these factors may greatly stress military kids' mental health, their resiliency depends on the support they receive. Preparing for deployment as a family can help families handle the stress and changes of separation, noted Blasko.

Still, separations are not new for military kids. Because of continuous permanent changes of station or parental deployments, they know how to keep connected through letters, video chat, and other means, she added.

Additionally, living in geographically diverse locations - whether in the United States or other countries - exposes them to people who have different world views, perspectives, histories, and knowledge sets, added Johnson.

"This widens their opportunities to learn about different backgrounds, cultures, experiences, languages, and so on," she said. And "while moving frequently can provide some challenges, research suggests that as a result of military relocations, many military-connected children develop advantageous social skills needed to readily connect and engage with peers as well as adults."

Their experiences encourage many military-connected children to embrace positive military values such as patriotism, honesty, selflessness, and honor, said Johnson. "The adoption of positive core values likely contributes to enhanced self-worth and promotes healthy social and emotional development in many military youths."

This can result in kids with strong resilience skills that help them adjust and cope with military-related stressors, explained Johnson.

"These resilient kids adapt to new environments, put themselves out there to make new friends, and sometimes pick up more responsibilities at home," added Blasko.

Said Johnson: "Overall, the military lifestyle can be a very positive experience for many military-connected children. Military lifestyle experiences can instill a sense of responsibility, independence, tolerance, and maturity."

However, both experts agree that for some, it can prove stressful, and parents and other important adults should be aware of this possibility and provide support as needed to help all children adjust to this lifestyle.

A mother wearing a face mask and a child sitting on the ground
To celebrate Month of the Military Child last year, children at the Fort Drum School Age Center and Chapel Child Development Center, about 85 miles north of Syracuse, New York, participated in a sidewalk chalk art project (Photo by: Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs). 

The whole family must adjust to many new experiences, so planning, communicating openly, creating new routines, and having a plan for keeping connected to the deployed parent are important, explained Blasko.

These can include letter writing, preparing care packages, and connecting via technology when possible, added Johnson.

Other ways families can assist children adjust to deployment and other military-related stressors include:

  • Developing and maintaining healthy family routines and traditions.
  • Maintaining boundaries and limits for children; they need to know that parents and other adults are in charge and can provide for their social and emotional needs.
  • Helping children and youths sustain friendships and other social supports.
  • Helping children and youths sustain normal activities such as church, clubs, sports, etc.
  • If possible, keeping children in the same school during deployments. If the family moves during deployment, preparing the child and ensuring a smooth transition by requesting school record transfers, researching the new school online, visiting the new school, principal, and teacher(s) ahead of time.

"Parents and other caregivers also need to find ways to take good care of themselves so that they are physically and emotionally available to support their children," said Johnson.

COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, military children have faced additional stressors. For Blasko, COVID-19 just created another type of separation.

As pediatric COVID-19 vaccines are closer to becoming available and the country looks forward to reintegrating into activities outside the home, she recommends the following strategies to help military children ease out of the pandemic lockdown:

  • Keep educated as a family of the required precautions needed for leaving the home, socializing with friends, and going to school - perhaps even have a "COVID-19 family rules" cheat sheet.
  • Establish a schedule and routine for going to school regardless of whether it's virtual or in-person: Set times to wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, transition to school, and homework.
  • Regular exercise, good sleep, and great food are a foundation to help us all cope. If we feel better, we can cope with whatever COVID-19 brings our way.
  • Find creative ways to have fun even during quarantines.

Resources for military families

There are multiple resources available for military children, youths, and families:

  • Installation-based recreational resources, sports teams, psychoeducational or support groups, child and youth services, and family support services are available to help them connect to the military community.
  • Military Kids Connect and Sesame Street for Military Families are online resources for military children and youth with multimedia information and activities to help them cope with the military lifestyle and its challenges.
  • National organizations, such as the Military Child Education Coalition, National Military Family Association, Blue Star Families, etc. provide educational resources and information for military-connected youths and families.
  • Military and family life consultants are available on most installations to assist families with adjustment issues and coping strategies.
  • Military One Source offers online resources and can connect families to professionals who provide short-term counseling to children, youths, and families.
  • Many military treatment facilities offer behavioral health services to children, youths, and families.
  • TRICARE providers are another resource for families with mental and behavioral health concerns.

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