The Pervasive Impact of Military Life on Children and Family

We have been writing about the issues facing our veterans. Today, we talk about the significant impact of military life on children and family, particularly the far-reaching effects of stress.

Children, the symptom-bearers of military family life

Child's letter to military dad
The military child must cope with a parents who are sometimes there and sometimes not. The stress is significant. (Photo courtesy of – The Florida Times Union)

While the parents in a military relationship face intense stress, the children of the family also have a common understanding: they know what it is like to have a parent face transfers, deployment, role-changes, potential physical dangers and PTSD.  The epic stress entangles the relational, emotional, spiritual and physical aspects of their lives. Practically, financial stresses can make the “feelings” process even more difficult.

We already know that children are symptom-bearers of the family life of the veterans. For example, while a father is serving (or especially in a single-parent family), a young male child may feel responsible for his mom’s protection and safety. How natural would it be for a parent to say, without meaning harm,  “while your father’s away, you are the man of the house.” The phrase may not even be said; still, the child may assume these objectives without realizing so.

Grief and time for adjustment

A number of factors contribute to a military family’s need for adjustment or processing grief.  Every time re-deployment occurs, anxiety or fear can arise. Even the sense that the world will always be changing and that one’s family may never feel stable as other families, leads to a sense of isolation and unpredictability. These conditions are magnified should an injury happen.

Even thinking about normal teen and child friendships is different. Military children often struggle with friendships because they know from the beginning that, at best, there will be upheaval as they will have to leave these friends when moving to another location. Imagine a childhood in which you cannot predict from year to year where you will live, who you will have relationships with and how long any phase will be. It is a whole life of uncertainty, stress, and loss.

Stress accumulates when one parent  is deployed for six months to a year because a support system is suddenly absent. The remaining parent becomes a single parent for all the issues the children face. That alone involves navigating and negotiating degrees of challenges. Then, as the family adapts to new routines, establishes schedules, and a sense of normalcy and rhythm, the other parent returns and disrupts the balance. As great as it is to see mom or dad return, changes such as these destabilize the home.

When family members are wounded

Then if we add PTSD, brain injury or other wounds of war, there are many new issues that the family will now have to deal with each day. Children can assume all kinds of stress to the point of feeling as though they have to fix the problem. They grieve at the struggles their wounded parent encounters while attempting to get help and recover.

If the injury is hidden like PTSD, the children are not equipped to interpret the messages of their hyper-vigilant parent who may be consumed with fear, re-enacting the past or simply incapable of dealing with personal struggles. Add confusion to stress and the mess multiplies.

Long-term consequences

Taking all factors into consideration, it is easy to see how children can harbor consequences into their adult lives. Some military children enlist out of a sense of parental obligation. While admirable and noble, if from obligation, the choice to continue a legacy may not be healthiest for the child. Our military children can often want to fix what went wrong in the past, an unattainable task.

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg of issues that our military children face. I cannot emphasize enough how we are greatly in need of support systems for military families. The need is monstrous for the parents, the children and the extended families who are dealing with a myriad of issues on a daily basis.

Many are working to provide help but we need others to join in as we commit ourselves to a system of support that addresses imperative issues. One idea that we have can be found at American Veteran’s Tribute Organization’s Web site ( I will continue to post more about our military children as we look at specific issues. It is so important to their futures and ours as a nation.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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