Long before the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” found its way into American culture, military parents knew that raising their children in a safe and nurturing environment was a community effort. Being a military child brings with it inherent challenges and rewards; a strong support system within the military culture can ensure the rewards outweigh the challenges.
According to the Department of Defense 2011 Demographics Profile of the Military Community, 43% of the more than 2.2 million active duty, Guard and Reserve members have children. The report also shows that military spouses and children outnumber service members by a ratio of 1.4 to 1. These stats are not lost on lawmakers and military leaders, who have taken steps over the years to ensure that policies and programs for military families remain flexible and robust.
Beyond the formal support structure, the military family’s extended support system can be as diverse as it needs to be, including (but not limited to) family, friends, neighborhoods, school, church, clubs and other organizations. Ideally, a proactive approach is the best way to build this kind of support system, so you have support in place before you need it. Since military families move three times as often as civilian families, this proactive approach allows for more flexibility when adapting to new locations. This can be especially useful for military children who are experiencing depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.
Helping military kids build their own support system
Kenneth J. Graves, PhD, is a clinical child psychologist with Child and Family Behavioral Health Services at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He recommends that children who are old enough to help manage their own support system should volunteer in some capacity.
“Volunteering offers an opportunity to participate in purposeful and goal-directed activity,” Graves said, adding that volunteering typically means being involved in activities with others.
“This can help broaden a child’s social circle, and consequently, broaden the support system,” he said. “Volunteering helps a child build a stronger sense of responsibility as well as a sense of accomplishment, both of which are important in building self-esteem.”
When possible and age-appropriate, siblings should stay together as much as possible in any support activity, Graves said.
“Other than factors such as age and perhaps skill level, depending on the task or activity, I see no reason for siblings to be separated. Support systems are about providing support to children and families. If this can be done with families together, all the better,” he said.
Encouraging your child to join in
“If your child is reluctant to get involved. it’s important to first explore why he is reluctant. It may be something that can be addressed by caregivers or by the child working with caregivers,” Graves added. “Offering choices of ways in which he can be involved can sometimes be helpful because it gives him more of a sense of control.”
Graves added that once a choice has been made, parents should encourage as much involvement as time allows.
“If he wants to decrease or stop involvement with the support system you should explore the reasons why,” he explained. “If they are legitimate, respect his decision while at the same time encouraging him to consider other choices to maintain a support system.”
Model communication skills that build support
In “Reducing Mental Health Risk for Kids in Military Families,” an article for U.S. News & World Report, health editor Michael O. Schroeder writes that communication is vital to maintaining the support network.
“Keep lines open with children, family and community members who provide support,” he wrote. Showing children how to cope through communication demonstrates strength, and models appropriate behavior for them.
For parents of children with mental health issues, the Child Mind Institute offers free, comprehensive resources geared toward parents and teachers with one goal in mind – helping children succeed. The website features a page dedicated solely to the issues military families face, plus the ability to “Ask an Expert.”
“A support system is everything in a military family”
Jane V., (whose name has been changed for the purposes of this article), lives in Florida with her husband, an Army recruiter, and their two young children. Having lived in Germany, Texas and Florida – all within four years – she quickly caught on to military life.
“A support system is everything in a military family,” Jane said. “When we moved to Texas we were thankfully close to family. But when you are stationed in a foreign country or in the States away from your friends and family, it makes it very difficult to juggle everything in life, especially as a full-time working mom.”
Jane said she was surprised that the best support system she encountered was overseas.
“I think that happened because everyone over there is in a foreign country, thousands of miles from any family, and we created a family in the friends we made. We were always there for each other learning the ways of German culture and helping scared newcomers adapt to living overseas,” she said.
When her husband became a recruiter in 2017, it added another dimension to their lives.
“When you’re at an installation you’re surrounded by other military families. But in recruiting you’re pretty much alone, surrounded by civilian families who don’t understand the struggles of military life,” Jane said. “As a soldier, my husband has to put the mission first, which means he is at work a lot. Recently both of my kids have been battling strep throat, and I had to miss multiple days of work because we don’t have a good support system here.”
According to Graves, if both parents are military, depending on their job responsibilities, extended family may often play a vital role in creating and maintaining a support system for children.
“This is especially the case if both parents have responsibilities that frequently take them away from family for weeks or months at a time,” he said. “Fortunately, the military offers a number of programs that help to prepare families for these situations and supports them throughout.”
Other places to find the support you need
While military spouse groups or local pages on Facebook offer a place to ask for advice or meet people, Jane said she met most of her friends through her job. And while unavailable at her current location, she recommended using family readiness resources at military installations.
Graves cautions that while social media has value, it shouldn’t be used as a primary support system.
“Social media can serve as a vehicle to share information about ideas and events that military families may find helpful and supportive,” he said. “However, face-to-face contact and engagement with others is a better way of providing the kind of support that we know to be most beneficial to children and families.”
For more information on building your support system, the following sources are available to military families:
- Installation Family Support Programs: available at military installations to support all families, regardless of service affiliation.
- The U.S. Navy has instituted a program called FOCUS – Families OverComing Under Stress. It provides resilience training to military children, families and couples. FOCUS can be found at nearly 30 U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force installations, and online at their website.
- Family Assistance Centers: located in every state to serve geographically dispersed military families. Find the one closest to you at the Joint Services Support website.
- The Military OneSource website is a confidential Department of Defense-funded program that offers comprehensive information on every aspect of military life at no cost.
- Many states offer military-focused agencies or websites that feature one-stop resources. The Texas Education Agency features a Military Family Resources website.