Military life and civilian life differ in key ways, and these differences affect families in particular. Since September 11, there have been higher rates of deployment and a correspondingly increased rate of family stress and domestic abuse. Deployment and the stressors associated therewith are especially important to understand. A review of literature shows that PTSD and other problems are linked to increased rates of abuse among military families. Research also shows that abuse can be prevented, whether or not PTSD exists. The ways to prevent abuse include developing resilience. Resilience includes a range of coping mechanisms that help parents be more able to deal with change and uncertainty. Parents can then pass on these traits to their children. Developing a strong social network has been proven especially helpful in both military and civilian families. Both civilian and military parents benefit from the development of resilience, coping skills, and effective parenting styles.
Being a child in a military family is challenging in the best of times, which is why the Department of Defense (DOD) operates the website MilitaryKidsConnect.org ("MilitaryKidsConnect, org, 2014). However, the Department of Defense might not be doing enough to protect children from the effects of parental deployment and the subsequent disruption to the family life. Military life presents several challenges and problems that are unique, and which differentiate military children from their civilian counterparts. For example, military children have to deal with their parents' long deployments, during which they might not see the parent for a long time. Military children might have to deal with the death or severe injury of a parent. Likewise, military children might have to deal with the mental health issues associated with military service like post-traumatic stress disorder. Frequent moves are another challenge that is unique to the military life. Although there are some similarities between military and civilian children, and although many military families cope well with the stressors and strains in their lives, there are some serious problems associated with military life that impacts children in particular.
Review of Literature
The literature shows that military and civilian families are dealing with different issues, and that since September 11 those issues have grown more salient. Child abuse and neglect problems have risen among military families across the United States, especially since September 11. This is because since September 11, there have been high rates of deployment. September 11 led to high rates of deployment and also a relatively low rate of return for many military officers, causing stress in military families. In one study in Texas, researchers found rates of abuse and neglect of young children in military families doubled since October 2002 ("Stress of deployment boosts child abuse, neglect in military families," 2007). This high rate warrants attention, even as abuse remains a problem in the general population.
Prior to September 11, rates of abuse were higher in the general/civilian population than for the military population. This shows that September 11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a generation of children growing up with additional stressors. "Almost a decade of wartime stress associated with the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has presented unprecedented challenges for military families," ("Stress of deployment boosts child abuse, neglect in military families," 2007, p. 1). Because the DOD might not have been able to develop effective intervention programs to respond to the rapidly increasing need for psychological and family counseling, some military families are unable to cope with mental health problems such as PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a particular problem among military personnel and their families. PTSD leads to "parenting impairment," including violence, maltreatment, and neglect ("Stress of deployment boosts child abuse, neglect in military families," 2007, p. 1). Furthermore, PTSD in the parent has the potential to lead to "secondary traumatization" of spouses and children, causing them to develop PTSD and other mental disorders as well ("Stress of deployment boosts...
1). Families of service members with PTSD tend to be less cohesive, adaptive, and supportive. ("Stress of deployment boosts child abuse, neglect in military families," 2007, p. 2). A great amount of attention needs to be placed on military personnel diagnosed with PTSD in order to prevent the problems associated with domestic abuse.
However, parental deployment and related stressors can have an impact on the child regardless of whether or not abuse takes place. The child, especially when old enough to understand, knows that combat is dangerous and the parent might die or come home injured. Studies show "increased child anxiety and behavioral changes have been identified across developmental ages," ("Stress of deployment boosts child abuse, neglect in military families," 2007, p. 1). This is one of the main factors differentiating military from civilian children. Civilian children may have a parent who occasionally takes business trips, but not one who is away for the extent of time or reasons as a military parent. Military families need to develop a high degree of tolerance for change and uncertainty. This type of psychic tolerance is known as resilience, which is being able to cope with change, stress, and problems.
Resilience is one of the most important factors to focus on in mental health, when it comes to reducing child abuse in any population. Resilience is defined as "the ability to withstand, recover, and grow in the face of stressors and changing demands," ("Help Your Family Face Challenges Successfully," 2014, p. 1). There are several ways that successful families demonstrate resilience. Some of the key factors that enhance resilience include "family support and positive communication," ("Stress of deployment boosts child abuse, neglect in military families," 2007, p. 1). Nine core factors have been outlined in the research including finding meaning in adversity, having and developing a positive outlook, transcendence or spirituality, flexibility, connectedness, social and economic resources, open emotional sharing, clarity, and collaborative problem solving ("Help Your Family Face Challenges Successfully," 2014, p. 2). These are all factors that can be incorporated into the domestic environment, and also taught in formal programs for families.
There are several formal and informal ways that parents can develop resilience and teach their children to be resilient. Resilience depends on developing strong social connections, including joining support groups, faith organizations, and hobby groups. The DOD MilitaryKidsConnect.org Website also suggests that parents avoid seeing their crises as being insurmountable, by trying to alter attitudes and outlook ("Help Your Family Face Challenges Successfully," 2014). This is of course easier said than done when a parent dies in the line of duty. However, one creative way would be for the surviving parent to join support groups and engage in public speaking. This is true for civilian parents as well as military parents.
Many of the tips for military parents can be equally as effective for civilian parents. For example, another way to develop resilience is to accept change ("Help Your Family Face Challenges Successfully," 2014). Military life requires change. Families will move repeatedly depending on where the officer has been stationed. Yet civilian life can also entail massive and sometimes disruptive change. Some civilian parents move around a lot too, due to the demands of work. This can be especially disruptive for children who need to make new friends in each location. Resilience is especially important in these cases, to deal with change.
Parents can also help develop resilience by developing realistic goals and sticking to them, taking decisive action when necessary. This is also true for civilian parents. Self-discovery exercises and similar activities promote healthy goal development ("Help Your Family Face Challenges Successfully," 2014). The military provides some of the most effective ways to offer opportunities for parents and their children to develop personal goals and promote personal growth (Masten, 2013). Unlike civilian children, military children will inevitably be exposed to peers from other backgrounds and to other cultures. Some civilian children do not have this opportunity. Diversity can be used to help children in all situations, regardless of whether the child is from a military or civilian background. No amount of peer-based activities can make up for a missing parent, though.
Unfortunately, military parents are more likely to miss out on key events in a child's life such as graduation. This can create feelings of abandonment and neglect in some children. "Cell phone and Internet communication with a deployed parent may assist parents and children in maintaining their relationship at a distance," ("Help Your Family Face Challenges Successfully," (2014). Parents need to keep in touch with their children whether or not they are members of the military. When parents keep in touch with their children, they recognize that all the child's important life events are part of an integral whole.
Both the military and civilian families can recognize the importance of a systems approach, whereby family issues are viewed as being part of the overall social system including peer group relations, school, and the whole community. As Masten (2013) points out, the systems approach…
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