In 2002, I moved to Europe to work in the early intervention system for U.S. military families. I thought I would stay for a couple of years, then move back to the states. Ten years later, I headed back to the states after serving the children and families of active duty U.S. military from all branches. Today, I continue to work in the military system here in the states. My experiences—both overseas and here—taught me that working with military families requires a different viewpoint and skill set.
Below, I share a few of my insights gained from serving this unique group of clients. It’s useful to keep these things in mind when treating a member of a military family.
Issues particular to military children and families:
- Frequent moves can result in high stress, especially for kids. Military families move every two or three years. These moves relocate them all over the country as well as all over the world. Military kids change schools each time their family changes duty station. That means they must make new friends as well as adjust to new therapists and teachers. In addition, young children don’t understand when their toys and furniture start to disappear into moving vans. And many families arrive in their new home weeks before their things do, so they don’t have familiar or comforting objects around them when facing new situations.
- Parental deployment and reunification. Children often don’t fully understand why mommy or daddy leaves for months at a time. This additional stress might result in tantrums, sleep and eating issues, or other behavioral changes. Once the deployed family member returns home, there’s also a period of adjustment. Outside services—such as Military OneSource—can help families and children during these times.
- Separation from family and friends. Many of us rely on close friends and extended families to help us. Being a parent for the first time is scary, but being a new parent stationed in Japan can be even scarier and lonelier. Military children often grow up separated from their extended family and without a support system of longtime friends or neighbors,
- Families stationed overseas might find themselves in a world where they not only can’t speak to locals, but are suddenly illiterate as well. They also face lifestyle differences like driving on the left side of the road, using a different alphabet or eating at earlier or later mealtimes.
Unique strengths of military families:
- Frequent moves result in increased flexibility and coping skills. I’ll never forget the family whose home I visited a week after they arrived on base. They were completely unpacked and had already posted their children’s drawings on the fridge.
- Ability to create support systems. Many military families spend considerable time away from family and friends, so they excel at seeking out and creating their own support systems with other military families as well as community services including schools, scout troops, churches, sports teams and recreational centers.
- Accepting new friends and peers. Military children need to make new friends every few years, which might help them develop social or communication skills faster. Military kids often go to school with lots of other military kids who understand their situation, so they accept new peers into their group more easily.
- Exploring the world. Many families get the opportunity to live in Europe or Asia. They learn to travel with children, try new foods or even learn a new language. This helps kids remain open to trying new things in general.
Remember that the families of those who serve in the military face challenges and make sacrifices to our country, too, and some of them are perhaps your clients. I look forward to sharing more of what I’ve learned about treating these unique families in future posts!
Lisa Lunsford, MA, CCC-SLP, has worked for the military for more than 11 years and in early intervention for 20 years. She’s provided treatment in four different states and four different countries. firstname.lastname@example.org