Helping Military Children: Ignorance is no longer an excuse

Here’s an excellent article submitted by reader Brandon Menikheim on a very unique subject: intervention with children of Military families. Mr. Menikheim earned a gift certificate to for her submission. Learn how you can do the same!

There is a growing problem contained within the walls of each and every school around the nation, and around the world. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a new population of students has added to the diversity of the student body. Children with military affiliations continue to increase in number, even amongst schools that are not centered around a military base. What is the problem that is becoming so pervasive? Most educators are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding this unique, yet more common, group of students. The issues which these students face are life altering, yet very often unnoticed by an outsider trying to look in.

Due to the lack of understanding, “military children see themselves as set apart (Horton 2005, p 259).” They feel different from everyone else, which leads to development of feelings associated with a lack of belonging. Their isolation stems from the inability of their peers, and others in their environment, to be able to understand their reality; It is one that you must experience in order to fully understand. They give themselves labels, such as “military brats“, and feel stigmatized by them. Unique challenges and issues confront military dependent students that educators and counselors generally are not aware of, but need to become aware of in order to effectively develop appropriate interventions (Harrison & Vannest, 2008). While it may be common knowledge that deployment negatively impacts children, what may not be openly realized is the exact ramifications it has emotionally, academically, and behaviorally.

According to Harrison & Vannest, deployment can lead to a decrease in children’s academic performance, an increase in feelings of anxiety and depression, and the development of aggressive and defiant behavior. While these functional problems were typically found to only exist during the time of deployment, it was also noted that the inability of educators and counselors to address these needs, could develop into a learning gap. Changes in a student’s functionality may be deemed as temporary due to the circumstances. By creating this false perception of the student’s abilities, the educator or counselor does not provide the services that the student is in need of, which in turn intensifies the issues the student is privately dealing with.

A common misperception is that the problem a student exhibits is in direct correlation to his or her inability to cope with the absence of the deployed. The truth is however, negative emotional and behavioral issues are typically associated with the inability of the parent left behind to cope with the separation, and therefore provide effective and supportive parenting to the child. In the absence of a loved one, those remaining become the only available support system. It is only logical that a lack of this support system would create problems of maladjustment, given that the child has no foundation to work from. Factors that can contribute to this lack of familial cohesiveness are the length of the deployment, and whether the deployment is noncombatant, or wartime. Stress levels are significantly more elevated the longer someone is deployed, and the degree of danger they are in while deployed. As can be expected, there is a correlation that exists. As deployment time, and/or risk of combat increases, family cohesiveness decreases. Knowing that, it is important for educators to realize the need to develop a supportive educational, and social, environment for these students while in school.

Lincoln, Swift, & Shorteno-Fraser (2008) validated these findings and stressed the difference in today’s military children from decades past. Today’s children are dealing with unpredictability. Lengths of deployment were at one time relatively Military Children predictable. Currently, however, deployment extensions, and multiple deployments in a relatively short period of time, are more frequent. The frequency of deployment has developed a sad statistic for military children, “the average military family moves every 2 to 3 years (U.S. Department of Defense, 1998).” Even though the statistic today is outdated, the only difference in the statistic would be a lower stability rate in terms of consistency of movement. In other words, today, reserves are activated more frequently than they were being activated 12 years ago. It can only mean that military children are being moved around even more in the recent years compared to a decade ago.

With constant movement from one place to another, children have difficulty developing new friendships, establishing themselves academically, and adequately adjusting to their environment. It is hard for these children to develop the support system that they need, because they feel that as soon as they do, it will only be ripped out from underneath them once again. It becomes a double edged sword; a defense mechanism that they utilize to keep themselves from being hurt anymore, but at the same time, it isolates them from those around them.

What is even more disturbing for the military children of the 21st popularity the current war situation has in the media. Due to the extent to which the war is being covered by local media, there is an increased awareness of the risks associated with war, leading to increased risks of emotional and behavioral difficulties. Knowing what the situation overseas is, seeing it constantly unfold before their eyes on the television, children find it hard to keep their minds off the potential impact that war can have on a loved one’s safety. The distractive nature of these thoughts manifest itself in the form of sleep difficulties, poor attention spans which lead to difficulties in school, anger, and/or loss of interest in usual activities. It becomes vital at this point for school personnel to have the second order of mind ability to realize that these impediments are more than just instances of acting out, but are products of the student’s mental health.

What can educators and counselors do to help these children who are falling under the radar until it is too late? The simple answer to the previous question is simple, yet tends to bewilder many educators still today. What they need to do, what we need to do, is to take initiative. Too often the excuse of ignorance is used to explain the lack of action that is taken. People rationalize their immobilization by pleading that they had no idea a given issue was actually a problem, or that they simply did not know how to approach the problem because of lack of training in that area. There is a way to combat ignorance however, it is called research. Continuing education is at the forefront of every occupation. Trends and issues are drastically changing, so it becomes the responsibility of the professional to keep up with the times in his or her field. In the school system, research can be done simply by walking the hallways of the school. Observe the students, listen to them, empathize with them, just try to understand their world. It is that simple. To find out what students need, ask questions. It is also a good idea to take the time to review the current literature on the topic. While the availability of various literature resources is scarce, what is available is helpful in determining what it is these students need.

Current literature is drawing the most attention to assisting students with maintaining communication with the deployed family member (Harrison & Vannest, 2008). Students need to be encouraged to write e-mails, letters, arrange for phone conversations if available, and/or use current technology like instant messaging to their advantage. These are activities that can be incorporated into school groups, or into individual classes (such as language arts or English classes). It is a way to help the students develop that connection which is lacking during times of deployment. Keeping communication lines open gives the student the outlet he or she needs to express his or her feelings, and to have validation about the current physical state or his or her loved one.

Individual and group counseling is also emphasized as a therapeutic intervention for military affiliated students. Counseling sessions gives the students the opportunity they need to share their feelings, needs, and fears about the process of deployment. It offers students a supportive, safe environment where they are not judged, only listened to and validated. Groups also offer the educators and counselors the opportunity to teach students some vital coping strategies such as anger management skills, relaxation techniques, and social skills training via role-play and modeling.

Horton (2005) is a strong advocate for the group counseling aspect of helping military children. She held to the belief that stress management classes not only for children, but for parents as well, can aid them in understanding the burden of stress that they are under, but also to help them realize they are not alone. As has been stressed already, the support system is vital during times of deployment. The hard thing is actually the development of a trusting relationship, because these are the people who fear getting too close, because they believe it will only be ripped away. Horton felt that a way to combat this blockade is through nontraditional counseling techniques. Art and art therapy can enhance trust, build rapport, and help children to process their internal struggles. She also felt that using poetry and story writing is helpful in giving voice to the children’s feelings and emotions.

Another important lesson to teach military students, according to Horton, is how to interpret the media. Children may need help in sorting out the messages they receive from the mass media, and learn for themselves how to understand the reports; they may need help determining when reports are incomplete and therefore cannot be taken too seriously. Sometimes the only means of communication these children have with the deployed individual is the media. It is the only source of information they are given when the military member is on assignment and unable to make phone calls or write for weeks, if not months. Any information the student receives through the media is going to be taken to heart, because he or she has nothing else to go by. It is important to help the student sift through the information that is reported because of this reason.

Regardless of what form of research is used, whether it be actually questioning of students, or reading up on literature, one conclusion is obvious, deployment affects children. Some military affiliated students are more resilient than others, but all have a lot to deal with emotionally. The unfortunate side effects of emotional exhaustion are deficits in academic and personal/social functioning. The recommended supports that the research offered have been shown to create stable, supportive environments in which children can experience a safe learning environment, which will hopefully carry over to other areas of their life as well.

Harrison, J., & Vannest, K. (2008). Educators Supporting Families in Times of Crisis: Military Reserve Deployments. Preventing School Failure, 52(4). 17-23.

Horton, D. (2005). Consultation with military children and schools: A proposed model. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 57(4), 259-265.

Lincoln, A., Swift, E., & Shorteno-Fraser, M. (2008). Psychological Adjustment and Treatment of Children and Families With Parents Deployed in Military Combat. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 64(8), 984-992.

U.S Department of Defense (1998). Selected manpower statistics, MO1 (The Directorate for Information, Operations, and Reports). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Mr. Menikheim has also included this great example of a therapeutic group for a Military Support Guidance Program.

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