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The Scientific Study of the Military Child

More than 2 million children have sent a parent to war over the past ten years, and yet we know very little scientifically about how this experience has affected them. What are the implications for child development, and what can we do to help our children meet the challenges?

Ed note: This guest post was written by Kathy Roth-Douquet, who is the CEO of Blue Star Families

When the First Lady cares about something, it inspires action – and within the past few weeks, the First Lady’s Joining Forces initiative inspired child development researchers to gather together and consider something very close to my heart, military children. It's easy for people to forget about military children – the image most people have of “the military” tends to be of young fighting men. But as a military spouse, I know that more than ever before we have an older, married military – more than half of those in uniform have children. More than 2 million children have sent a parent to war over the past ten years, according to the Defense Department.  That’s an enormous number – more than the number of people who have fought in many of our wars.  And yet we know very little scientifically about how this experience has affected them, what are the implications for child development, and more urgently, to those of us who parent military kids – what can we do to help our children meet the challenges?

Even after ten years of war, we know relatively little, there is relatively little programming for military children, and many programs aren’t based on research.  I was thrilled when prominent researchers at the DC-based think-tank, CNA, proposed putting together a workshop on ‘The Scientific Study of Military Children.’ It was the first of its kind, bringing together leading researchers on children’s behavioral health – who may not have ever considered military children – together with researchers from the military community, then, importantly, adding policy makers (to make sure something comes of the conference) and real military families and children as speakers, to keep it real. Joining Forces co-sponsored the conference.  I was proud to have my organization, Blue Star Families, involved, and to work with Military Child Education Coalition on the program, as well as with researchers from major research institutions.  The workshop met for two-and-a-half days in late November. 

What did we learn from this conference?  Things that ring true: that the challenges of military life play out over time, that military children can develop character strengths and resilience from the pride that they feel in their lifestyle and their recognition that the work of their parents is important. We also learned that parents’ psychological health is important for the functioning of their children. 

But more importantly, what do we still need to learn?  Conference organizer Dr. Sarah L. Friedman summarized that we come away from the workshop with an explicit research agenda, that requires policy support: we need to learn more how to reduce the experience of stress, and to learn more about what conditions increase resilience in families and in children of different ages, temperament and pre-existing conditions. Some specific items:

  • Again and again speakers asserted the effects of deployment and its aftermath may emerge over time or diminish over time, so we need research that tracks children over time.
  • Much of the research regarding military children is based on samples of convenience. For the conclusions of research on military children to be valid, we need to recruit families and children that are representative.
  • We need to evaluate existing programs for the extent that they support attachments to key figures in the child’s life, reduce stress and increase coping skills. Interventions that do not do that may not be useful or effective. They may not help children thrive despite the challenges of parental deployment, injury and death.

And most importantly, something my group, Blue Star Families has focused on is the fact that in the military, the family is an important unit for understanding the individual, and for health and well-being. As Dr. Friedman said, “Since the family is perhaps the most important factor in determining the success of children’s development over time, we need to understand how military families function and what makes them healthy and strong. There is a need for research that will inform us about how to (a) best support families with children and (b) reduce conflict and abuse in the context of the family.”     

Research agendas are very important – science-based research is how we make sure we are doing work that really helps.  But in the meantime – what about me and my children?  I asked Dr. Friedman, what are the take-aways for military parents – or those who care about military children?  Here’s what she told me:

I think it would be helpful to tell families that the children of deployed parents, injured parents and parents who give their life to defend US interests abroad do best when they are part of loving families and caring communities. The specific manifestation of the love and the care that the children need in order to thrive depend on their age and their special characteristics, including temperament. In order to advise parents, child care providers and teachers how to nurture military children of different ages, temperaments and pre-existing health issues—we need to do research. To do such research, families and children need to allow researchers into their lives. They need to agree to share information about themselves. We hope that families and children will be generous and agree to participate in research that will benefit many other children in the future.      

A few days after I got back from the conference, my husband and I walked our little dog in the hilly park near our new home – new duty station – in Germany.  We were talking about how our children were adjusting to this latest move, the newest school – the 8th school for my 7th grader.  And I found myself telling my husband about the conference. There were a couple things that gave me structure, and focus for thinking about my parenting, and about our family.  First and most important was the piece about secure attachment. It’s hard for us to always know how our actions, our choices, affect our kids. The moves, the deployments – too much discipline, not enough? But we can love our kids, and let them feel we understand their needs, respond to those needs, provide support and truly care for them, and feel some confidence that that in itself makes a difference. Secondly, I thought about the finding that our mental health – we the parents – matter. So we need to keep our own stress in check, or shape it for our kids.  If we think the deployment, the move is terrible, that’s what the kids will think too. Instead, I can say, ‘I really hate unpacking too, it’s hard when you haven’t made friends yet, but in a few months, this will be behind us –we just need to get through it.’  And we need to make the time, take the steps we need to manage our stress – whether that’s exercise, yoga, counseling, or getting enough sleep. And finally, remember that all these experiences play out over time, particularly the experience of being so close to war, whether we’re the service member or the family member. We need to have patience and let them play out, and not insist that “it’s over now, let’s just move on.” 

The conference was a relief for me.  It’s a relief to have smart, inclusive thinking applied to the problems facing the military community, military families in particular.  I am gratified that the country, through Joining Forces, is helping my small community with these issues.  After all, these kids are serving the country in their own way. And it’s good to feel that the country cares.