02 Nov Military Family Appreciation and Resources
November is National Veterans and Military Family Appreciation Month. As we take time to appreciate the many sacrifices of our Military to ensure our safety and freedom, we must also acknowledge the sacrifice of Military families. Parenting is a difficult job even in the best of circumstances—it’s never-ending and always changing. However military personnel and their partners are parenting in extreme circumstances with high levels of frequent stress. The US Department of Veteran Affairs reports that children of deployed parents tend to worry more and are often scared and sad. Active Parenting leaders have a long history of helping, and we encourage you to continue to step up to support these special families as well.
Leaders have been helping military families on bases throughout the world for over forty years. Dr. Popkin recalls one leader actually teaching a course to sailors aboard a submarine at sea over a three-month period! To make it even more effective, spouses back on base also took the same Active Parenting course so that they would be on “the same page” for the challenging re-entry when the family was reunited.
The issues facing military families are unique and very challenging. I spoke with veteran Active Parenting Trainer, Pamela Wood, who has superbly trained hundreds of AP leaders over the years. Pamela is also a 20-year veteran Military Police Officer, parent, and grandparent, so she knows first-hand the struggles our military parents face, and she has incredible insight into the issues that children of military families experience.
Gain Some Understanding
Many of us have not served in the military and can only imagine what it must be like. To provide some context, Pamela explained that some people get into the military intentionally while others kind of fall into it coincidentally—like people who joined after 9/11 and may not have had time to consider the ramifications. Some factors of military life to consider:
The Intentional Individual is focused on their military career and rank. They may be following a long tradition of military service in their family. They have a better idea of what to expect and are committed to the military. When they face challenges—they will stand up to it and stick with it. If the spouse did not realize what they were signing up for—this can create a lot of stress for the couple/family.
People who can’t find a job, or who’ve been told they won’t succeed anywhere are almost forced into military life believing they have no other options. They may not be as prepared for the issues they will face. This feeling of limited or non-existent options affects the mindset of the family. These individuals are usually short-term—some make it through the initial duties—but their hearts are not in it.
Privates make very little, and the financial struggle creates stress. They will need two incomes to support a family.
Number of Children
Officers tend to have fewer children. Lower enlisted ranks tend to have more children—which puts even more stress on the family.
According to the US Census Bureau, the military has the highest divorce rate of any career field. The rate is much higher for women in the military at 7% compared to 2.5% for men in the military. Even considering the negative impact of divorce on children—many children of military parents say they wish their parents had divorced earlier.
Deployments and Long Trainings
Very few careers require employees to be away from their families as long. Add in the risky nature of military service and it is sure to cause the family a lot of stress and worry.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Pamela uses the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Questionnaire to make assessments of the level of toxic stress children are exposed to in their family life. These stressful or traumatic experiences that happen during childhood can significantly increase the risk of serious health, mental health, and behavioral consequences. If you are not familiar with the ACE Questionnaire—click here to watch a video from Dr. Nadine Burke Harris (California’s First Surgeon General and Founder of the Center for Youth Wellness).
ACE Questionnaire Questions (with some notes from Pamela):
- Were your parents/guardian divorced? High divorce rate amongst military families.
- Did your parents/guardian ever serve time in jail or prison? A 3-year sentence is similar to a military term and payday violence is common in the military.
- Was a household member depressed/suicidal? Depression runs high in the military because of the extreme isolation. Anxiety and depression are common in children of military parents.
- Did you ever witness household members hurt or threaten to hurt each other? This is also common in the military.
- Did a household member swear at, insult, humiliate, or put you down? Or did they act in a way that made you feel afraid? A lot of military children answer yes.
- Did someone ever touch your private parts or ask you to touch their private parts in a sexual way? An Associated Press investigation documented nearly 600 sex assault cases among kids on base since 2007.
- Did you go without food, clothing, a place to live, or someone to protect you more than once? Many military children can say yes. The base pay is not enough, many are on food stamps.
- Did someone ever push, grab, or slap so hard it left a mark? Many military children said yes.
- Did you live with someone who was drinking or using drugs? Military members often see terrible things and they use alcohol or drugs to numb themselves.
- Did you feel unprotected or unloved? A lot of military children say yes even if they understood it was not intentional.
- Were you in foster care?
- Were you harassed or bullied in school? Military children change schools often which leads to an increased risk of harassment or bullying.
- Were you in a family where a family member died? The risk of death is greater because military jobs are often more dangerous.
- Were you separated from your parent by deportation or deployment? Pamela was separated from her young son for 9 weeks for training school. He only recognized her in her uniform.
- Were in a situation where your parent had an injury or life-threatening illness? Many return from deployment with permanent injuries.
- Did you see or hear violence in your neighborhood or school?
- Were you treated differently because of race, gender, or sexual orientation?
- Were you alive during Covid (before 2023)?
Toxic Stress and How It Impacts Children
Our bodies respond to stress by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Children are more vulnerable to the effects of these stress hormones because their bodies and brains are still developing. Exposure to prolonged stress or chronic stress changes the way children’s brains, hormonal systems, and immune systems are developed. All these factors can lead to an increased risk for ACE Associated Health Conditions like asthma, allergies, chronic disease, obesity, sleep disturbances, developmental delays, trouble with school, aggression, depression, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and more. Unfortunately, a child who grows up experiencing multiple adverse childhood experiences struggles with these conditions which increases the risk for their children. Passing it down generation by generation until someone can find a way to heal and stop the cycle. Healing usually involves getting help. Leaders can help parents find a way to stop perpetuating toxic stress by providing tools to manage and reduce stress.
What Can We Do?
Many of the methods taught in the Active Parenting Model are effective ways to reduce the risk of exposing children to toxic stress. Leaders can teach parents methods such as:
Bonding with their children
As a child grows, the bond between parent and child strengthens or weakens depending on their experiences with one another (Chapter 1 of Active Parenting: First Five Years Parent’s Guide). To strengthen this bond parents can play with their children, laugh together, talk, care for their child’s needs, soothe, and calm. Active Parenting advocates: Every Day a Little Play! As we say, children spell love T – I – M – E. Parents can continue to build upon this bond as the child grows with things like: mutual respect, encouragement, and communication.
Caring for the Caregiver
Remind parents to take care of themselves (Chapter 1 of Active Parenting: First Five Years Parent’s Guide). Parenting in a supportive and nurturing way is difficult when they are stressed. This is why mindfulness activities to manage stress for parents and children (and Leaders too!) are so important. Sign up for our emails for more tips on mindfulness activities for yourself and to share with parents.
Chapter 2 of the Active Parenting 4th Edition Parent’s Guide:
- Listen Actively
- Identify and respond to feelings
- Look for alternative solutions and evaluate consequences
- Offer encouragement
- Follow up
Communicating with teens presents its own special challenges that are discussed in Chapter 2 of the Active Parenting of Teens Parent’s Guide.
Exercise and Healthy Food Choices
Exercise and healthy food can go a long way to promote physical and mental health. Physical activity not only improves physical health but mental health as well. Every day a little play covers physical activity and bonding with your child. The Mayo Clinic talks about how regular exercise can ease depression and anxiety by releasing endorphins that help people feel good in addition to being a good way to take your mind off worries. And numerous studies show that eating healthy foods promotes the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine which regulate our mood and emotions. For an overview see the New York Times article: How Food May Improve Your Mood.
When the going gets tough the tough get help. Here are some resources that you Leaders can suggest:
- Military and Family Support Center
- Resources and Podcasts from Military One Source (including parenting resources and relationship support)
- US Department of Defense: Help for Parents that includes:
- Resources for Spouses from the US Department of Defense (includes education & career opportunities plus a blog that talks about Military life)
- New Parent Support Program
- Safe Infant Sleep Guide
- Help for Children Coping with Deployment
- 9 tips to help military families navigate the system for families with children who have learning differences
- Financial Assistance for Military Families from the Red Cross
- Relocation Assistance Program which includes assistance with moving your personal property, housing options, medical services, child care, employment opportunities for family members, and school selection assistance
- Our It STILL Takes a Village to Raise a Child blog offers more suggestions for places to find help
I would like to thank Pamela for her commitment to families and her dedication (more than 40 years!) to family empowerment. And, for talking with me about her research and insight into the special circumstances of Military families. Pamela has spent her life helping families build healthier, happier, and more loving experiences. To our Leaders and parents who have served in the Military, thank you for your service!
We believe that with a better understanding of the effects of toxic stress on children and their families, we can work together to provide tools and resources to reduce and manage stress and help children to thrive. Together we can help families break the cycle of toxic stress and start a new cycle—a success cycle (those of you familiar with the Active Parenting model will recognize this). We are dedicated to preparing Leaders, helping you to provide the best programs to the families you serve to support them through every stage, every step.
Sources and Resources:
- Active Parenting: First Five Years by MICHAEL H. POPKIN, PH.D.; AMANDA SHEFFIELD MORRIS, PH.D., IMH-E; RUTH SLOCUM, LCSW, IMH-E; LAURA HUBBS-TAIT, PH.D.
- Active Parenting 4th Edition by MICHAEL H. POPKIN, PH.D.
- 20 Ways to Step Up Your Parenting Skills from Military One Source
- Children Coping with Deployment by the National Center for PTSD by the US Department of Veteran Affairs
- Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with links to risk factors and prevention strategies
- Adverse Childhood Experience Prevention: Resources for Action from the CDC
- The CDC-Kaiser ACE study
- Fillable ACE Questionnaires for Children and Adults in English and Spanish by ACES Aware
- ACE Screening Clinical Workflows, ACEs and Toxic Stress Risk Assessment Algorithm, and ACE-Associated Health Conditions: For Pediatrics and Adults from ACES Aware
Contributing Authors: Pamela Wood and Gabrielle Tingley
Active Parenting Publishers founder and president Michael H. Popkin, Ph.D. has been providing research-based education programs with an emphasis on nonviolent discipline, mutual respect, and open communication for 40 years. He is widely known for his expertise in the field of parent education and has appeared on over 100 TV programs, including CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
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