Military kids – What effect does having a parent in the military have on a child’s mental health?

Military personnel are more likely to marry and start a family earlier than most others. They are employed in steady work, get on the job training and, these days, a number of additional supports while they work. So, it is not surprising that many military men and women are working parents. Parents may serve in different roles in the military. Some may work on a base and some may be deployed far from home.

When a person goes off to defend a nation, to “keep peace” or to help with aid and reconstruction after some war or force of nature, what happens back at home?

While we are well aware of the extended psychological impact of those who serve in the military, especially in combat, there is also a large impact on those at home. The psychological effects can start with the notice of a parent’s deployment and tracks through various stages of impact until long after the parent’s homecoming.

Children at different ages are likely to respond differently to a parent who is absent due to military service. Little ones miss crucial time during attachment that needs to be managed carefully to ensure their psychological wellbeing. They can also be very affected by the stresses that impact their other parent at home. School age children are old enough to be well aware of the risks of having a parent in the military. They are old enough to know that there is a chance of their parent being injured or dying and never coming home. Children also miss out on having a parent present at certain important times for them – school performances, sporting victories, graduations. Older children with a parent in the military tend to take on more responsibility than most of their peers and often share a greater burden of the household chores and care of younger siblings.

If a parent returns from service with poor mental health, then additional responsibilities often befall the children and sometimes, sadly, there can be increased family conflict.

Whilst the notice that a family member is about to be deployed increases family anxiety for military children, it can often be that most of the stress is experienced with the parent coming back home again. Sometimes roles have changed and a family rhythm is developed in a parent’s absence and it can take up to a year for that stress to settle. Often, when a parent returns, that is when other supports from outside of the family drop back, but there is a clear need to maintain support for sometime after the parent’s returns.

Additionally, life as a military family can mean multiple moves. For children, multiple moves means multiple schools and teachers, changing support systems, repeatedly leaving friends and sometimes living in another country. It is probably not surprising that children of military families have been found to perform somewhat more poorly than their peers when it comes to academic challenges, especially when their parent is absent for longer than 19 months.

It seems that across time, different wars and combat zones have had different impacts on how individual defence personnel and their families cope. Research into the children of Australian Veterans from Vietnam indicated that these children had a greater than normal suicide rate or accidental death rate. These statistics prompted additional services for the children of those who returned from Vietnam. Many of these “children” are now adults and have children themselves.

Those who have served in recent conflicts or missions have had very different day to day experiences than those of years ago. Deployments are much longer than they once were and the long term nature of many military operations has meant that many in the military have served away from home multiple times and in quite quick successions. However, Australian research is indicating that contemporary veterans are improving more quickly when it comes to benefiting from psychological interventions after combat and that their benefits are being maintained for some time.

The type of support that children of military families need, therefore, will vary widely depending on their parents role in the military, how many times their parent is deployed away, the mental health and stress of both parents (the parent who is deployed as well as the parent who stays at home) and the child’s age.

It’s important to know that despite many possible stressors, most military children seem to manage well. There are a number of factors that seem to help military kids. Helping military parents at home to manage stress can help the children and it is clear that this support needs to continue long after the serving parent has come back home.

Helping children stay connected to the absent parent is also important. Social media can help with this, but needs to be managed carefully. Social media can bring home the realities of conflict, can make it frustrating not to be close and can lead to information coming home through the wrong channels, but if parents are mindful of these risks, it can help keep the relationship between child and parent engaged and relating.

It also helps military families with very little children to make and keep routines and consistency. Increased predictability reduces anxiety for little ones.

The other important factor protecting military kids is often their strong sense of military identity. Belonging to a supportive military culture can mean that children feel a part of a strong, serving and sacrificing culture that can be quite protective. Colloquially referred to as “military brats”, children of those who have served in the military can be afforded some emotional support from the friendships and networks that the military provides. “Military brat” groups can be found all over the world and appear to offer each other affection and respect that goes with having been through similar situations together.

For those who are interested in more ways to help children of military families cope with military life, there are some resources available of the Department of Defence website. On the Defence Community Organisation pages there are links to teen and child workshops as well as toys and books to help children understand the role that their parent is performing in the military.

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