The Unique Mores of Military Children
“If someone were asked the design an environment that would be as tough as possible on the family systems, it would probably look a lot like the military” (Hall, 2008, p. x). The children of our Nation’s military members, military brats they are sometimes called, wear the mantel of their breadwinner’s (or breadwinners’) employment like no other occupation’s offspring in America.
“Children of deployed military personnel represent a unique subculture in the United States. Most of these children are not only resilient to the burdens that the parent-soldier brings to the family, but also honor the responsibility and significance of the mission required of their deployed parent” (Lincoln % Sweeten, 2011, p. 73). In doing this however, military children (hereafter: brats) must constantly negotiate and re-negotiate their roles within the family system. As they grow older, just like children everywhere, brats have more and more responsibility is lumped upon them. The constant relocations and high operational tempo deployments can put a young child into an older child’s role before he or she is psychologically ready to handle them. This can take its toll on the parents as well; a shrinking (or shifting) support network is absent as a result of the relocation and deployment cycles. This “can lead to overreliance on one’s immediate family and isolation of the family from additional social support networks (e.g., friendships, church). Overdependency is especially troubling in single-parent families, if the parents replaces adult support networks with a child who takes on an adult role as confident” (Drummet, et al., 2003, p. 281).
Along with trying to discover who they are and where they fit into the social and family’s “big picture” (in the normal course of growing up), the brat sometimes must assume the role of being identified solely as the son or daughter of their mother or father (depending on which, or both, is the service member). “One of the characteristics of military children is their ability to adapt to situations quickly. This adapting child becomes extremely vigilant and very early learns to mimic whatever nuances the new environment provides to fit in quickly” (Hall, 2008, p. 103).
With each unit Christmas party, Thanksgiving social, and command picnic or get-together comes a preceding and uncomfortably long lecture about how the childrens’ behavior and manners will be reflecting directly on the service member, so the brat(s) had better behave (i.e. enjoy yourself, but not too much). I know this; I am the military brat of a Navy mustang, my wife is an Air Force Officer brat, and my children (mustang brats age 6, 7, and 9) are probably all thinking the same thing my sister and I were thinking in the back of the Volkswagen back in 1978 (“Yes, we get it Dad, now can we just get this over with”). Military culture demands these lectures; a service member’s “inability to handle their family problems could be generalized to their ability to handle difficulties within their unit and bring into question their leadership competence” (Drummet, Coleman, & Cable, 2003, p. 279). Even scientific research supports the sincerity of their need. Brats are well aware of what their mother and/or father do, it’s importance, and how they are integrally tied to that mission’s success. Brats constantly re-indentify themselves (and seek approval in the new role) as the family situation, autonomy (in absence of one or both parents), social diversity and hierarchy, and constant geographical specifics of life (sports and leisure, clubs, even modes of transportation) force them to tackle issues regular children their age are not yet dealing with (Drummet, et al., 2003; Fenell & Fennell, 2003; Hall, 2008; Lester, et al., 2010; Lincoln & Sweeten, 2011). “Military children often have difficulty reconciling the paradoxical contradictions of their life, particularly the need for autonomy verses the need for structure” (Hall, 2008, p. 108). In this struggle they sometimes “acquire a worldly demeanor as though [they] were mature beyond [their] years. At the same time, [brats] may shockingly mishandle peer relationships—to the dismay of parents and teachers—simply because in moving around so much, [they have] missed some fundamental lessons about dealing with people over time” (Hall, 2008, p. xii).
Our Brats Verses Other Brats
The Department of Defense calculated moving a military family every 2-3 years and the increased “operational tempo of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to significant acceleration in the typical deployment rotations” (Lincoln & Sweeten, 2011, p. 75). True, “there are many occupations that require a parent to be away for a long period of time, but [they] do not represent the intensity of stress potential in the same way as military deployment” (p. 77). The children of movie stars or politicians must deal with being the shadow of their parent’s careers, but the financial resources and support that this breed of spotlight brings to the equation make the comparison between military brats and real-world brats completely off the mark. Still, our brats continue the march with pride toward their goals--sometimes with more success. When asked about their childhood, adult brats “recounted being happy with their school, home, and community environment, which led [Jeffreys & Leitzel, 2000] to conclude that in comparison to civilian adolescents, military adolescents are doing as well as and, in some cases, slightly betters than their civilian peers on most of the indicators measured” (Hall, 2008, p. 123).
Dual-military or Single-Parent Homes
It is not that the school-age children of our Nation’s service members are alone; it is that they can sometimes feel as though they are alone (Hall, 2008). In the United States it is estimated that more than 1.2 million children have an [active duty] parent, with more than 700,000 children experiencing one or more parental deployments since September 11, 2001 (Kelly, 2003; as cited in Lester, et al, 2010 and Lincoln & Sweeten, 2011). “These school-age children primarily attend civilian public schools in which the staff may not understand the children’s life experiences” (Hall, 2008, p. 101) and often their neighbors and peers do not either. Teacher may hear that a child’s single-mother military parent is deployed to Afghanistan, but may not fully appreciate the at-home turmoil that particular young girl is facing. “Dual-military couples and single-parents who are deployed must find temporary guardians for their children, often on short notice. Guardians may have little knowledge of how to handle to the increased emotional and physical needs of children separated from their parents” (Drummet, et al., 2003, p. 281). Lester, et al. (2010) found that “approximately one-third of the children affected by parental deployments demonstrated clinically significant symptoms of self-reported anxiety compared with community norms” (p. 317). By their own admission however, “the volunteer sample of families interested in participating in [their] study may be have been more likely to report symptoms and seek services” (p. 319).
“Mental health support services are developed and provided to ensure that military personnel and their family members are psychologically equipped to respond effectively to combat stressors as well as other occupational and family stressors associated with military service” (Steege & Fitscher, 1991: as cited in Fenell & Fenell, 2003, p. 2). Military families are simply different; they statistically are having more (and more frequent) pregnancies at a younger age than their civilian counterparts (Hall, 2008). Military families move more often, are separated more often, feel loneliness more often (Fenell & Fenell, 2003) and face a world so unfamiliar the civilian mind that often every explaining it to them is fruitless. “This combination of a lonely soldier working long hours married to a young, immature partner is a recipe for marital difficulty” (Fenell & Fenell, 2003, p. 10). But as generations of healthy and successful marriages and brats will tell you, it is not insurmountable.
“The military has made significant efforts to be more responsive to developing and providing services to families of deployed” parents (Lincoln & Sweeten, 2011, p. 83). In a phone conversation (this very morning) with my mother, Teresa Frey, the most experienced military wife and mother I know, she revealed that when we were growing up in Eva Beach, Hawaii (when my father was an E6), she opened a daycare center on the base without military funding. She explained that back in the early 70’s the Navy did not “recognize” dependents under age 6 so she had to petition the base CO for a space to use. She and two other spouses raised the money themselves to clean and open the facility. When we all returned years later (with my father as an Officer) the daycare was still open and that time it was being funded by the Base through official money. This fascinating recount, if true, certainly says a lot about the progress we have made as a nation in recognizing the importance of the military family to military mission. Even if it is not true, it still becomes valuable commentary on the attitudes of abandonment and do-it-yourself-ness that the spouses and families in the early days of our history had to adopt to service the home front while their spouses were deployed on the warfront.
We have come a long way. There are programs in place for individual counseling, group counseling, and psychoeducational counseling. Service members and their families should have access to classes and counseling about stress, anger, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol, infidelity, drugs, violence, child and spouse abuse, religious tolerance and growth, marital, family, school counseling, deployment and reunion counseling, financial, and every imaginable (one would hope) level of involvement a person might seek for help in their personal, social, and professional lives (Drummet, et al., 2003; Fenell & Fennell, 2003; Grossman, 2009; Hall, 2008; Lester, et al., 2010; Lincoln & Sweeten, 2011). The trick is not that the systems need to be put in place but rather that additional energy must be placed on getting the word out and the utilization up. “Unfortunately, programs are underutilized, particularly due to the stigma of accessing services and partially because they [may be] underdeveloped due to funding restrictions or lack of awareness about what is needed” (Drummet, et al., 2003, p. 286).
Clearly the challenge is there; clearly the solutions and help are available for those who recognize their need for it and seek it; and clearly the military brat is up to challenge.
Drummet, A. R., Coleman, M., & Cable, S. (2003). Military families under stress:
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Fenell, D. L., & Fenell, R. A. (2003). Counseling services for military personnel and
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Grossman, D. A. (2009). On killing. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.
Hall, L. K. (2008). Counseling military families. New York, NY: Routledge of the Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.
Lester, P., Peterson, K., Reeves, J., Knauss, L., Glover, D., Mogil, C., Duan, N.,
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