Journal Issue: Military Children and Families Volume 23 Number 2 Fall 2013
In this issue of The Future of Children, we seek to integrate existing knowledge about the children and families of today's United States military; to identify what we know (and don't know) about their strengths and the challenges they face, as well as the programs that serve them; to specify directions for future research; and to illuminate the evidence (or lack thereof) behind current and future policies and programs that serve these children and families. At the same time, we highlight how research on nonmilitary children and families can help us understand their military-connected counterparts and, in turn, how research on military children can contribute both to a general understanding of human development and to our knowledge of other populations of American children.
These goals are timely and important. Since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, followed in 2002 by the war in Iraq, the United States has seen the largest sustained deployment of military servicemen and servicewomen in the history of the all-volunteer force. As a result, more than two million military children have been separated from their service member parents, both fathers and mothers, because of combat deployments. Many families have seen multiple deployments—three, four, even five or more family separations and reunifications. Others have struggled with combat-related mental health problems, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); physical injuries, including traumatic brain injury (TBI); and death, all of which can affect children and families for years.1
Media reports about the wars and human interest stories about combat veterans and their families have made most Americans more aware of the challenges that military families and children have faced over the past decade. The history of military children, however, goes back much further in time and tells a complex story of the interrelationship among these children, their military parents and families, and the military and civilian communities in which they live. Though these children face many hardships, they also demonstrate health and wellness in many ways, and they live in communities with rich traditions and resources that strive to support them.
The terms military child and military family have been used in various ways. President Barack Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff define military families as active-duty service members, members of the National Guard and Reserve, and veterans, plus the members of their immediate and extended families, as well as the families of those who lost their lives in service to their country.2 However, researchers who study and collect data on military families and children typically define military families as the spouses and dependent children (age 22 and younger) of men and women on active duty or in the National Guard and Reserve. This is the definition we use here, although we broaden it to include the children of military veterans because the experience of military family life may continue to affect the growth and health of parents, families, and children long after service members leave the armed forces. Though we recognize that military service also affects parents, siblings, and other relatives of service members, our authors do not discuss these relatives in any detail, reflecting a paucity of research in this area. In addition, what becomes of military children when they reach adulthood, including their own greater propensity to volunteer for military service, is also of great interest and worthy of future research, but it is outside the scope of this issue.
The articles here present considerable evidence about America's military-connected children and their families, but the authors also point to the limits of our knowledge. At this writing, in the second decade of the 21st century, we still need unbiased, basic information about what typically characterizes children's development in our diverse military-connected families. Research on the development of military children has focused largely on the quality or function of their family systems and on the potential risks of a parent's deployment to their wellbeing, but we need to understand more about the strengths and resilience of these young people, particularly as they face challenging circumstances. A few studies describe how a parent's PTSD affects children, but we know very little about the effect on children of combat-related injuries (including TBI) and death, and we must extrapolate from the civilian literature in those areas; we need longitudinal studies (research that follows children and family members across time) that examine military children in these circumstances. The knowledge we have is sufficient neither to guide our understanding of military children's resilience nor to help us design better programs to mitigate the risks they face.
Much of the research about military children examines stressful experiences (for example, a parent's deployment, moving, or maltreatment and abuse) or the deficits that these stress factors purportedly cause (for example, poor academic performance, depression, or behavioral problems).3 Though we need to understand any negative effects of military life on children, the data from such research tell neither the complete story nor what is perhaps the more important story. In large part, researchers have yet to examine military children's strengths, how these strengths can sustain them through adversity, or how their own strengths interact and develop with the strengths of their military families and the communities where they live. Moreover, we have yet to fully identify and assess the resources for positive development that exist in these children's schools, in the military, and in their civilian communities. In short, the existing research offers only a rudimentary depiction of military children and their families across their respective life courses, and certainly not a representative one.
The children of military families deserve to have policies and programs designed to fit their developmental needs. Given the extraordinary sacrifices that military personnel make, and the invaluable services that they provide, our lack of a thorough understanding of their children's development is not appropriate. A balanced approach to the study and understanding of military children— one that measures the effect of risks but also incorporates a focus on strengths— will give us the clearest and most comprehensive picture of this population, for several reasons:
1. Research that focuses on the broader impact of stressful or traumatic events on children describes a wide range of responses, including not only anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, risky behaviors, and even PTSD, but also positive adaptation and growth. The severity of the stress, the proximity of the experience, the children's age and gender, their history of exposure to other traumatic experiences, their parents' or caregivers' functional capacity, and the availability of social supports all typically contribute to the outcome. Understanding specific risks and the disorders or dysfunction they can produce lets us more effectively target prevention and intervention strategies that promote health.
2. Most children exposed to traumatic events are likely to be healthy rather than ill. Therefore, preventive interventions that support health through adversity by imparting resources, skills, and broad resilience-building strategies may benefit not only military children but a larger segment of the population as well, and may help us develop community capacity to manage a broad range of challenging experiences throughout all children's lives.
3. Self-efficacy—the capacity to feel in control of one's own development—is a critical skill that helps both individuals and communities recover and thrive when they face adversity and traumatic experiences. Therefore, to support military children and their families, we must understand how to foster individual, family, and community capacity for self-efficacy.
4. Enhancing the lives of children in military families also enhances the quality of their families' lives. Research documents a positive relationship between the wellbeing of the families of military personnel and the likelihood that they will stay in the service. Given the nation's continual need for high-quality service members, it is in the public interest to ensure that military children and families are thriving.
5. Without precise knowledge of military children's strengths and their opportunities for positive development, conjecture and overgeneralization will inappropriately frame decisions about meeting their needs and supporting their health, and we cannot have confidence that we are using practices, formulating policies, and developing or sustaining programs based on the best information we can obtain. Decisions about ameliorating the inherent risks of military life to help children grow and thrive need to be based on evidence derived from well-designed, theoretically predicated developmental research.
6. Given the current state of research on military children, we cannot adequately describe how they may be using their strengths and resources to cope with either the typical opportunities and challenges shared by all children or the unique opportunities and challenges of military family life. In addition, we need to know more about the life course of the hundreds of thousands of children with parents who have been wounded or profoundly changed as a result of a combat injury or PTSD, and about the development of children who have experienced the combat-related death of a military parent, sibling, or family member.
Noting the interconnections among service members, families, and child health and functioning, and how these interconnections influence child development, we support a theoretical approach that incorporates a life-course perspective. We know little about the "linked lives" within military families.4 That is, we need to understand the mutually influential connections between the development of children and the development of their parents, both during the parents' periods of service and in the later periods of the life course. Finally, the links between the lives of children and parents—as they experience events such as moving, changing schools, deployment, reintegration, or a parent's traumatic injury, illness, or death— have yet to be thoroughly elucidated. As the articles in this issue show, a life-course perspective provides a vital and unifying theoretical approach to describe how military children develop.
Accordingly, in this issue we use a life-course perspective to review data about how contemporary military families and their children develop. This perspective is predicated on the idea that human lives are interdependent and "socially embedded in specific historical times and places that shape their content, pattern, and direction."5 As a consequence, the life course involves interconnections among people's life paths as they live in their families, work, grow older, move, experience historic events like war, and face life events that are both ordinary (such as puberty, or starting and finishing the school years) and extraordinary (such as a parent's injury or death). In response to the settings, transitions, and events in their lives, writes Glen H. Elder Jr., "individuals construct their own life course through the choices and actions they take within the constraints and opportunities of history and social circumstances."6
Of course, we need good science to produce such knowledge about military children, knowledge that will let us better take care of their health and support their development through effective individual, family, and community prevention and intervention strategies. Most studies of military children have been limited by using small convenience samples—that is, groups of people who are easily accessible and available to the researchers, but who are not representative of the broader population—or by focusing on children's deficits rather than their strengths. We need an approach that moves beyond these children's purported deficits, and that recognizes and examines the broad impacts of both challenges as well as strengths in military children, families, and communities. Although the interactions of risk and health promoting forces within military families and communities are complex, existing longitudinal research demonstrates that we can study such dynamic interactions using larger, representative samples.7
The articles in this issue expand our knowledge and illuminate a path toward a more representative depiction of military children and their families. In this way, they not only summarize the evidence we need to enhance existing policies and programs that ameliorate risk and promote positive development among military children; they also offer a critical guide for new research to support future innovations in policies and programs. Next, we provide an overview of the contributions to this issue and their implications, for military children and families as well as for all families.