Child & Youth Care Forum

, Volume 39, Issue 5, pp 351–366 | Cite as

Exploring the Role of Social Connectedness Among Military Youth: Perceptions from Youth, Parents, and School Personnel

  • Kristin N. Mmari
  • Catherine P. Bradshaw
  • May Sudhinaraset
  • Robert Blum
Original Paper

Abstract

The increased stress on military families during wartime can be particularly difficult for adolescents. The current study employed 11 focus groups with military youth, parents, and school personnel working with military youth to better understand how youth and their families cope with stressors faced as result of living in a military family. An inductive approach was used for data analysis, where two coders and the lead author coded the transcripts until saturation was achieved. Matrices and data display models were developed to make comparisons across participant groups. Findings revealed that military youth are most worried about making frequent moves and having a parent deployed. However, youth and their parents who had better social connections to each other, their peers, and their neighborhoods appeared to make better adjustments to these challenges. School personnel reported that more military families needed to become aware of the services offered to help families cope effectively. Implications for future research and intervention programs for military youth and their families are discussed.

Keywords

Adolescents Social connectedness Military families Mobility Parent deployment 

Introduction

Over one million US troops have been deployed to active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan since the attacks on September 11, 2001 (Department of Veteran Affairs 2005). The increased risk of deployment likely exacerbates the stress already experienced by military families. The adolescent children of military service members may be particularly vulnerable, as they experience a number of unique challenges throughout the course of their parents’ military service while also having to adapt to normative developmental stressors (e.g., pubertal onset, the formation of peer relationships, parent/child relationships, increasing academic demands, and opportunities to experiment with a range of risk behaviors) (Compas et al. 2000). Although these stressors may negatively impact military youth’s ability to adapt to new situations and settings, previous research on military youth has been mixed. In fact, according to some studies, military youth actually adapt better to some of these stressors in comparison to civilian youth (Marchant and Medway 1987; Shumaker and Stokols 1982). The social connections that parents and adolescents form may help to explain some of this success, as research conducted among non-military youth have shown that a high level of social support can mediate many of the challenges and risks facing them (Catalano et al. 2004; Commission on Children at Risk 2003; McNeely and Falci 2004).

The current paper used qualitative data from military adolescents, their parents, and school staff to examine not only the challenges experienced by military youth and their families, but also to explore the role of social connectedness in helping families to cope with such challenges. Specifically, the primary objectives of the current study were: (1) to identify the main ‘stressors’ affecting adolescents who have a parent that is a military service member; (2) to explore the role of social connectedness among military parents and their adolescent children; and (3) to examine potential strategies for coping with the challenges of living in a military family. Having an enhanced understanding of the unique set of stressors and buffers experienced by today’s military youth may inform the development of prevention and intervention strategies to better support military youth during the potentially vulnerable period of parental military service.

Military Family Syndrome

In many ways, military children live in unique family environments. Unlike many of their peers at school, military youth frequently have to endure periodic separations from parents(s), face fears about their deployed parent’s life, and make numerous moves to military bases over the course of their parents’ period of military service. Despite these challenges, it is unclear from the current literature on military youth as to whether such challenges lead to long-term negative outcomes among youth. LaGrone (1978), for example, argued that military youth are likely to exhibit more behavioral problems than children in civilian families, because such problems are symptoms of the “military family syndrome,” in which fathers are authoritarian, mothers are depressed or overprotective, and children often respond negatively to their parents’ discipline (Kelley et al. 2001). In fact, some empirical studies have shown that military children have higher rates of behavioral problems compared to children in civilian families (Cantwell 1974; Werkman 1992), whereas others have found no behavioral differences between military and civilian children (Jensen et al. 1991; Morrison 1981; White 1976). Many of these studies, however, have been conducted among relatively small samples of military youth, which could partly explain why the findings have been inconclusive.

Other studies have examined the impact of specific aspects of military life on adolescent adjustment, such as parental deployment or relocation stress associated with moving, but the findings also have been inconclusive. While some studies reported a negative impact of parental deployment on adolescent behavior and academic performance (Hiew 1992; Hillebrand 1976; Jensen et al. 1995; Rosen et al. 1993), there are others that suggest the impact of deployment may have been buffered by a high level of parental and social support (Chartrand and Siegel 2007; Jensen and Shaw 1996; Kelley et al. 2003). Similarly, while some studies have found that military relocation places stress on the family and on a child’s interpersonal and academic development (Orthner et al. 1989; Shaw 1987), others have found that military children actually do better both behaviorally and socially than their civilian counterparts following a relocation (Marchant and Medway 1987; Shumaker and Stokols 1982).

Theoretical Models

Despite the mixed results of previous studies, there continues to be concern about military youth’s adjustment in the school environment among parents, educators, and practitioners, particularly given the current rate of overseas military activity and the high volume of military family relocations (Cozza et al. 2005; Lasser and Adams 2007). We draw upon theoretical models of stress and coping, as well as research on social connectedness in order to between understand the potential impact of having a parent in the military on youths’ adjustment. We believe these perspectives will inform both the research on military youth and the use of interventions and supports to buffer the potential risks associated with having a parent in the military.

Stress and Coping

Family stress theory is frequently invoked in the research on military families (Drummet et al. 2003; McCubbin et al. 1980). This model highlights the potential influence of each family member’s perceptions of and reactions to life stressors on the entire family’s process of adapting to military-related stressors, such as frequent relocations and the threat of deployment. The broader literature on stress and coping (Lazarus and Folkman 1984) suggests that the accumulation of life stressors and demands faced by today’s highly military families may affect their ability to cope with these stressors, and in turn result in maladjustment (McCubbin and Patterson 1982). However, Rutter (1993) posited a stress inoculation model to describe the process by which successful adaptation to small stressors can enhance resilience to subsequent challenges. It is possible that the smaller challenges faced by military youth, such as frequent residential moves and school transitions, may actually bolster their ability to adapt to other stressors, such as parental deployment. Additional research is needed to better understand the process of stress and coping among military families in order to explain some of inconsistencies in the extant literature.

Social Connectedness

Examining the role of social connectedness in a military youth’s family is another potentially useful framework for understanding how youth and their families adapt to stressors (Barber and Schluterman 2008; Youngblade et al. 2007). Researchers describe social connectedness, or the psychological state of belonging, as occurring when individuals perceive that they and others are cared for, acknowledged, trusted, and empowered within a given context (Eccles and Gootman 2002; Whitlock 2006). Although much of the available research on connectedness has emphasized early connections with caregivers and among family members (Bowlby 1969), as children grow up they are progressively exposed to a range of social groups and contexts that influence adjustment. They become a part of multiple social networks, including peer groups (e.g., friends, siblings, neighborhood children, and classmates), relatives, and other adults as they navigate different institutions and settings (Beam et al. 2002). Each of these social ecologies carries with it multiple opportunities for connectedness to others and other intuitions (Bronfenbrenner 1979).

Overview of the Current Study

While a growing number of studies has highlighted the significance of social connectedness across these multiple domains for adolescent adjustment (Catalano et al. 2004; Commission on Children at Risk 2003; McNeely and Falci 2004; McNeely et al. 2002), relatively little research has been conducted on connectedness among youth in military families (Barber and Schluterman 2008; MacDermid et al. 2008). Consequently the current study aimed to better understand the challenges of being an adolescent in a military family and the role of social connectedness in an adolescent’s ability to cope with the stress of being in a military family. We defined social connectedness in the current study as a feeling of closeness, a perceived bond between others, and a sense of belonging with one’s family members, peers, and community (Barber and Schluterman 2008). Consistent with the stress and coping perspective (Lazarus and Folkman 1984), we consider social connectedness as a potential source of support which may facilitate the coping process.

To address our primary research objectives, we conducted separate focus groups with youth in military families, military parents, and school personnel in military-impacted schools at select US military bases. The focus group methodology was chosen because it has the advantages of trying to elicit local, subjective perspectives of “cultural insiders” about the topic in question and of allowing flexibility to pursue themes that emerge as the research progresses (Bernard 1994). In addition, using focus groups permits participants to reply to questions without having to be constrained by pre-determined response categories, thereby providing a more detailed and in-depth description of the participants’ opinions and perceptions. We also collected data from youth, parents, and school staff to better understand multiple perspectives on the issue across multiple ecological contexts (e.g., home, school, peer group) (Bronfenbrenner 1979).

Method

Participants

Recruitment

This paper is based on 11 focus groups conducted with participants from eight different military bases in Colorado, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, and Texas representing the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy. The bases were purposively selected because they had a high concentration of mobile military students, and were likely to be heavily impacted by Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). A staff member at each military base, who had strong connections to both the schools and military families, was responsible for recruitment of all three participant groups: military youth, military parents, and school staff. Eligible adolescent participants were enrolled in a public middle or high school serving the selected military base, had at least one parent stationed at the base, and had experienced at least one military-related move. Similarly, eligible military parents had an adolescent enrolled in a public middle or high school serving the military base. Special effort was taken to ensure that participants were recruited from families in different ranks of the military. In some instances, parent focus group participants were related to the adolescent focus group participants, although this was not a requirement for eligibility. Finally, military contacts recruited teachers, guidance counselors, and other school staff employed in the public schools serving the particular military base to participate in the school-based staff focus groups. All participants were informed in writing that the purpose of the study was to learn more about military youth and different ways parents and schools can support military adolescents.

Participant Characteristics

In order to capture three different perspectives on youth in military families, separate focus groups were held for adolescents, parents, and school staff at each site (Krueger 1994). The 11 focus groups were divided as follows: four focus groups of military adolescents (n = 39 youth in total); three focus groups of parents (n = 24 parents in total); and four focus groups of school staff (n = 35 school staff in total). A slight majority of the military adolescent participants were female (61%), with a mean age of 14.6 years (range = 12–18 years) and were in grades 6–12 (grade 6 = 5.0%; 7 = 10.2%; 8 = 20.5%; 9 = 17.9%; 10 = 12.8%; 11 = 12.8%; 12 = 20.5%). The average number of military-related moves reported by the adolescents was 5.72 (range = 1–15), with 10.3% reporting low mobility (i.e., 1–2 lifetime moves), 41.0% moderate mobility (3–5 moves), and 48.7% high mobility (6 or more moves). Just under half of the adolescents (46.2%) had a parent who was currently deployed and 89.7% had a parent who had ever been deployed. Most of the participating parents were female (71%) and most were the spouse of a service member (66.7%). The average age of the participating parents was 41.9 years and they had an average of 2.5 children (range = 2–4). The majority of school staff participants were female (61%, respectively) with the mean age of 49.8 years. Approximately one-third of the participating staff were classroom teachers, one-third were guidance counselors, and the remaining third were other school personnel (e.g., resource teachers, assistant principals). The school staff had been employed at their current school between 3 and 37 years and all had worked with military adolescents. The participating staff estimated that a large percentage of the students they worked with—either directly or indirectly—were military students (M = 78.9%, range = 40–100%).

Procedure

Each focus group discussion consisted of 8-10 participants, and a facilitator and note-taker who were members of the research team. Prior to conducting the focus groups, all facilitators and note-takers participated in a training on focus group techniques and practiced the focus group guide that would be used for the study. Two research teams consisting of one facilitator and one note-taker conducted all the focus groups for the study, with the facilitator and note-taker having the same role for each group. All focus groups were held between February and September 2006 at locations on or near the bases determined by the military base contact. The adult participants provided informed written consent for their participation. All adolescents provided written assent and written parental consent for their participation in the focus groups. Focus group discussions were audiotape recorded and transcribed for analysis by a transcriber not affiliated with the research study. Accuracy of transcription was verified by selecting a random sample of five focus group tapes and transcribing them a second time by a member of the research team and comparing them to the original transcriptions.

The format of the focus group discussions was established using guidelines for developing focused questions that make the group participants feel comfortable and provide the desired information (Krueger 1994). Question topics were developed and formatted into a semi-structured interview guide after earlier discussions with staff at the Department of Defense and were designed to learn about the challenges and benefits of having a parent(s) in the military, the type of social connections that are important for military youth, and how school staff and parents can help youth better adjust to some of these challenges. The same interview guide was used for all 11 focus groups. Questions on the interview guide addressed the study’s objectives of identifying the main stressors associated with being in a military family, exploring the role of social connectedness in the youth’ ability to cope, and identifying strategies that facilitate the coping process. The study protocol was approved by the authors’ Institutional Review Board.

Data Analysis

Qualitative data analyses were conducted using Atlas.ti software (Scientific Software 2004). Data analysis followed the ‘constant comparison’ method (Corbin and Strauss 1998) and was implemented by two research assistants, and supervised by the first author. Each research assistant independently coded the focus group transcription, which occurred in an incremental step-wise process that first involved open coding all individual responses for each of the questions. Secondly, each question-level response was coded for more specific, word-level replies. The results of these two steps were sets of statement-level responses organized within question-level categories. At each of these steps, a comparison of these codes revealed any discrepancies among the coders. All coding discrepancies were reviewed by the investigator and research assistants until consensus was achieved. If new codes emerged as coders read through more transcripts, the coding scheme was modified and transcripts were re-read according to the new structure. Using this constant comparison method (Corbin and Strauss 1998), saturation was achieved when no new codes were identified. Next, after all the codes were identified, categories of similar codes were created, which were then conceptualized into more comprehensive themes using a similar consensus-building strategy among the research assistants. Discussions among the research team were then used to develop a matrix of themes across the three groups of participants (youth, parents, and school personnel). For example, one of the key themes that emerged from this study was ‘moving challenges.’ All codes that were categorized under this theme were placed in the matrix, which allowed us to analyze how this theme was constructed across the three groups of participants. This analytic approach allows the content to be analyzed and summarized by categories, and the researcher to look for similarities and differences across and within groups, which further increases the validity of the findings (Krueger 1994).

Trustworthiness of the Data

A number of techniques were utilized in this study to ensure that that data which were collected were valid (Lincoln and Guba 1985). First, as mentioned previously, all focus group facilitators and notetakers participated in the same training and practiced using the actual data collection instrument to reduce potential researcher bias. Second, facilitators used the same focus group guide for all focus groups they conducted, allowing for data to be triangulated among all three participant groups and research teams. Triangulation can also increase the credibility of findings by using more than one method, researcher, or source for data collection (Miles and Huberman 1994). For our study, three different sources of data and two different research teams were used to collect data from the same data collection instrument to verify the findings. The high level inter-subjective agreement among coders also served an indicator of the trustworthiness of the data. To further validate analyses of data, preliminary findings were presented and discussed among all focus group facilitators and recorders. Feedback from these discussions was incorporated into the final results of the study.

Results

Challenges of Having a Parent in the Military

The Impact of Frequent Moves on the Loss of Peer Connections

Across all focus groups and sites, participants agreed that one of the biggest stressors for youth was the frequent moves that families have to make and the impact of the moves on their feelings of connectedness to others. For adolescents, the most stressful aspects of moving were having to leave their friends behind and develop new friendships at their new location. If the move occurred during the middle of the school year, this was even more challenging for young people.

During the first day of school is when you start making friends, but every time we moved, we would move two weeks after school started, so like everybody already made friends and you are just sitting there all alone. (adolescent, Air Force base)

The moving can be really hard. Like, I had friends at another school that I was growing up with them and everything was going okay and then I moved to another school and I became, like, the new kid and it was hard to make friends. Then it happened again when I started to settle down. (adolescent, Air Force base)

Some parents added that the personality of the children can greatly contribute to whether they face difficulty with the move.

We started moving every nine, ten months and my son shut down. And he really went through a major trauma with the moves because it hurt too much to move. And he is distinctively different then he is now as he was forced to redefine himself at every move and it a very vulnerable experience. I don’t understand how one family can have such different kids reacting in such extreme ways, but my daughter thrives on the moves and is very social and does just great. And my son was just getting worse and worse. He is a hockey player and every place you go, the more intensive it is. As a new kid, you are always breaking into club sports that have been together through all their training and so you end up being resented by the rest of your team members. And as a newcomer, my son always had to prove himself. And that is what he kept having to do with each move. But when we moved to a place that had no hockey, he had no means to fit in and find that instant group, and that was extremely devastating. (mother, Air Force base)

For those who are involved in sports, moving can create a whole array of unique challenges, including having to keep trying out for teams at each new location to never really bonding with team members. In fact, several parents and youth reported that military children often face discrimination when it comes to participation in sports activities. Sports coaches are hesitant to put military youth on teams—particularly in starting positions—for fear of disrupting the team or losing the starting player to a military-related move.

I’m putting my son in ice hockey next year. But he tells me now that we can’t move anywhere that doesn’t have ice hockey. This is now another worry that I have for our next move. (mother, Army base)

Some of the adolescents also described that they hated constantly having to pack and repack their belongings. One female adolescent described that because her family makes so many moves, she now keeps everything in boxes and never unpacks. Interestingly, when parents were asked about what was most challenging about the moves for their children, the majority of parents across sites felt that the education disruptions were most stressful. Many of these education disruptions took the form of not being able to transfer course credits from one school to the next, having to read the same books or hear the same information over again, and even missing some key courses because they were not available at the grade level in the new school. Some parents felt that if they did not ‘step up to the plate,’ and advocate for their children, their children would be far behind in their academic careers.

For the last four moves, my kids were always bored in school. Like you said, they had this class years ago, they had already read this book two times before, the book with the holes in it and every school system gives it a different grade. So, I mean my kids are straight As and Bs with little or no effort at all, and they have never been challenged. It’s frustrating. I worry about when they get to college, are they going to be prepared for a challenge? (mother, Army base)

The Impact of Deployment on Parental Connectedness

Not surprisingly, another challenge that was frequently mentioned by participants across focus groups was the worry and fear of having a parent deployed, particularly to Iraq or Afghanistan.

When my dad left it was when I was in the sixth grade and I was so scared that he was going to get hurt or something and it was tough watching my mom get really stressed out. (adolescent, Air Force base)

Many adolescents across the sites mentioned that one of the most difficult challenges of having parents deployed is not so much related to the deployment itself, but rather, the period of having to readjust after they return from a deployment. These students reported that they had adjusted to life and had experienced so much since their military parent had deployed that when the parent returned, the adolescents found it more difficult to relate to him/her again.

When your parents are gone for so long and then they’ll leave and you’ll be like 12 and then they come back and you’ll like 14 and you have changed so much and you don’t really like know then because you kind of like forget little things about then and they don’t know you because you have grown. (adolescent, Army base)

Several youth also described the difficulty in not having their deployed parent present at their special events, such as birthday parties, school plays, or sporting events. For some adolescents, however, having a parent be deployed may not be as challenging for them as it is for the parent who is left behind, which is most typically their mother.

I remember my dad left and my mom got physically sick because of all the stress and all the emotion all the time and it was all the more stressful for our family. (adolescent, Air Force base)

School personnel at a Navy base concurred and added that a large part in deciding whether a not a military youth is going to cope well with a parental deployment is dependent on how well the remaining parent is coping.

The children who are having difficulties are usually the ones where their parents are having difficulty with the situation and they pass it onto their children. These are the children who come to school and are thinking about other things that they shouldn’t be thinking about—especially at the age that they are. So, I think it goes back to the parents and if the parents have a good support system, then I think the children tend to fair better. (school personnel, Navy base)

At the same time, parents often blamed the school personnel for not knowing how to handle parental deployment among the military youth.

I think our kids are stifled to express what is going on in the education system. I was quite irate with an assignment in our school and military kids were given a different assignment than the military kids, which I thought was wrong to start off with. They were supposed to talk about the challenges of being a teenager, and the teacher said the military kids talk about the challenges of being a military teenager. And then when my daughter was working through the project and going through the outline of her proposed paper, I noticed that there was no where on that paper for her to express her feelings about her father’s deployment. When I asked her about that, she said that the teacher told them not to write about that because it was too sensitive. What’s the point of the exercise then? (mother, Army base)

Strategies for Coping

Living on Base Enhances Social Connections Among Military Families

Several adolescents and parents across sites reported that living on the military base was an effective way of coping or adapting to the stress of being a military youth. Specifically, adolescents and parents commented on the safety, security, and social support that come with living on a base.

Like with being on a base… you have freedom of walking around. You can just tell your mom, ‘mom, I’m going to the library now,’ ‘oh, mom, can we go to they gym?’ Off base, you can’t do that. (adolescent, Air Force base)

I live off base and I’m not allowed to walk to the pool, which is less than a mile away from my house. But if my mom drops me off [at the base], I’m allowed to go wherever I want on the base. She really doesn’t care, because she knows I’m safe on the base. And it really kind of puts a sense of security around you because you know it. (adolescent, Air Force base)

The adolescents also commented that activities and “places to gather” at the base such as “the BX, “the commissary,”, “the pool,” and “the gym” provided an opportunity for them to connect with other military youth and families.

I think like living on the bases….because like the people you go to school with, they live right next to you, and you can hang out with them all the time. (adolescent, Marine base)

Similarly, parents reported feeling both emotionally and physically “safer” living in base housing than in civilian neighborhoods. Particularly important was this notion of “trust”. One mother, for example, said that because she is living off base in a civilian neighborhood, she only tells a few “trusted” neighbors that her husband is deployed—and that is primarily to protect her children. A few youth from the Army and Air Force bases, however, noted that they were not able to make the base housing as much of a personalized home or living space. Specifically, they complained that they could not paint their rooms or hammer nails in the walls in their base houses. As a result, they felt they could never make it “their room” and it was always “somebody else’s room,” which was an obstacle to feeling connected to the base.

Being a ‘Military Brat’

Many participants across the focus groups said that just living in a military culture can foster a sense of independence and maturity among youth to help them adjust to the stresses of military life. In fact, one female adolescent reported that every time she moved, it made her stronger because the move made her more prepared for her future and how she would handle it. Another adolescent reported that like most military youth, she has had to grow up faster since she has seen more things and experienced so many different situations than most people do for their entire lives. Similarly, many adolescents described how life in the military enabled them to be more social and make friends easier.

Well I think being in the military—it makes you be more social because you have to learn to like get along with new people and you have to approach somebody for the first time, and try to make friends. (adolescent, Army base).

With like the moving every three years, I think some military kids are a lot more outgoing because you have to be, because every three years you are moving, so you have to make friends right away, or else you are going to be like, all alone. (adolescent, Air Force base).

Parents also reported several benefits of being part of a military culture. For example, a few parents from both the Army and Air Force bases found that, in comparison to civilian parents, military parents were generally more involved in their children’s schools and found that military parents performed the bulk of volunteer work at the schools and in the communities.

Something I always thought was interesting, is military parent are usually eager to be involved in schools and be volunteers. And I thought it was very surprising as we started being involved in schools how many military volunteers there were, as opposed to the civilian family members, actually working in the classrooms, or in the facilities. (mother, Army base)

Accessing Resources and Social Connections at the Base

Interestingly, while several school personnel from the Air Force base said there were many services at the base to help military families cope, very few families used them. Some reported they did not use them because they simply did not know they were available.

There are so many services for military kids, spouses, and the soldiers—but I’m not sure that people are really aware of them. I think there are people, like the social workers on a base, who know about these services. But I’m not sure that the people who should be accessing them know who they can ask about them. I’m always amazed at what is available for the kids on the base, but they really have to know who to ask. They have to know the right question to ask. (school personnel, Air Force base)

Unlike civilian adolescents, military youth often grow up in areas where there are no extended families, and consequently, they do not have the luxury of leaning on extended family members for support. School personnel, in particular, felt that such types of social support services are even more important for military families to utilize.

School-Based Programs to Promote Connectedness

Unlike the bases, parents, school personnel, and adolescents were all knowledgeable about the various types of school support programs that were available to adolescents and their families. Among these are ‘student-to-student’ and ‘meet and greet’ programs that are often offered at schools heavily impacted by military. In fact, many youth discussed that one of the best strategies to help them integrate into their new schools or community is to develop some sort of ‘buddy system’ or ‘meet and greet’ program. For example, one adolescent said that when she started her new school, they held a ‘new student party’ where they got to have a social hour where they met all the new adolescents and received a little ‘welcome’ package from the school. Another adolescent described a program called, ‘Student to Student’ where the school’s guidance counselor pairs up a new student with an existing student and that existing student shows the new student around the school and eats lunch with him/her in the cafeteria.

For some adolescents, getting in contact with other military students at a new location is the best strategy for developing new friendships and helping them feel connected to others.

I think we get along better with military people because they know who we are. So even if we are new, they will be the first ones to come up and say, ‘do you need any help, can help show you around,’ and you are more willing to take it from a military child then you are from someone else. (adolescent, Army base)

One adolescent reported that making new friends with fellow military youth is easier because they tend to know what each other is going through because, chances are, they also have been the ‘new student’ at one point in their lives. In addition to developing student peer groups for the military children, several school personnel felt it was important to develop support groups for the families as a whole.

Our mental health staff in our district put out an invitation and worked with some units to inform the parents about offering an evening support group for x, y, and z age groups of children and also for the remaining spouse. It can be a great learning opportunity for these families and a great way for the families to interact with us from the school. We come onto their turf, rather than have them come to use which is often times really difficult for them. (school personnel, Air Force base)

Improving the Connections Between the School and Military Systems

School personnel across the different bases reported that there was a need to develop a better communication strategy between the schools and the military bases. Currently, many teachers and guidance counselors do not receive any information about which child is ‘military’ and which ones are not. Many thought that this information was important, particularly if they observe a problem with a military child. If they know that a child has a parent in the military, they then could contact services on the base that might be helpful to that child and his/her family. A few school personnel, however, felt that this may not always be a good idea for the sake of safety.

You know, if you have an anti-war person on staff, that could really back-fire on you. That somebody would know that my children belonged to this pilot’s family puts cold chills down my spine. There is also the side of things that you have to consider that families have to protect themselves and I think that is why different installations don’t tell schools who is military and who is not—because of security issues. (school personnel, Air Force base)

Strategies for Adapting to or Avoiding Education Disruptions

Several parents from the Air Force base mentioned that the Department of Defense (DOD) schools were an excellent way to keep military students together and help them connect with other military students and families. Furthermore, the DOD schools also helped military youth avoid the education disruptions when they transfer to new schools.

I have to say that I know we have gone away from DOD schools, but I think they are the greatest thing in the world because the kid can move to an installation and know that they are going to a school where predominantly at least 90% of the kids there are military so the kids automatically have that fit and it’s not like, okay I’m walking in and I don’t know anybody. They are pretty much all in the same boat. (mother, Air Force base)

Other parents reported that it would be much easier if the military could work with the Department of Education to create a standard graduation format for military students. Parents and students could then ‘check off’ the types of requirements that they needed once they received it. Such standardization could help students not having to repeat classes that they did not need. Many parents agreed that since they or their spouses put on a uniform every day, the government should help their children received the best education they can and they should not have to worry about whether one state has different educational requirements from another. Parents from a different site concurred and said, “Why do we call this the United States of America? The states are anything but united. We should just be referred to as America.”

Discussion

Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been an increased interest in examining how children and families are coping with life in the military. Whereas much of the research to date on military youth has been conducted during peace time, the current study aimed to understand the types of stressors military youth experience, to explore the role of social connectedness among military parents and their adolescent children, and to examine potential strategies for coping with the challenges of living in a military family. We conducted parallel focus groups with military adolescents, parents, and school personnel in order to gain three different perspectives on these issues.

The findings from the focus groups indicated that one of the most significant stressors of living in a military family—having to make frequent moves and make new friends—also proved to make military children more mature, adaptable, and self-sufficient in comparison to their civilian peers. Consistent with Rutter’s (1993) stress inoculation model, these types of stressors within the context of a supportive family environment may have rendered the military youth better equipped to connect with other youth and potentially resilient to some of the other adverse effects of moving (MacDermid et al. 2008).

Another common stressor highlighted was the experience of parental deployment. Many youth reported worry and fear of having a parent deployed, as well as challenges associated with the deployed parents’ readjustment to the family upon their return. Parental deployment also resulted in stress on the family system, especially on the non-deployed parent. This finding is consistent with family stress theory, which highlights the significance of stress on the family system (McCubbin et al. 1980). The non-deployed parent’s ability to adjust to this stress not only appeared to impact on her child’s adjustment, but also seemed to be related to her having access to a strong support system. School personnel, in fact, discussed that although it was common to report challenges among students who were experiencing a parental deployment, they noted they were especially more frequent among students whose non-deployed parent lacked access to a strong system of social support.

The data from the current study provided evidence of the significant role of social connectedness in the lives of military families. For example, several participants highlighted the importance of social connections when discussing strategies for coping with all the various stressors of living in a military family. In fact, many youth across the focus groups noted how important it was for them to connect with fellow military youth—either at their school or living on base. School staff supported this perception and discussed the strengths of military youth who were able to form friendship groups quickly and identified strategies for connecting them with other students and the school environment. They also noted how important it was for parents to be ‘connected’ to other types of support groups, as these social connections had a reciprocal effect on their children. Parents, too, noted how important it was for them to live on base, where they were more likely to feel a strong sense of ‘trust’ and support among their fellow military families.

All groups of participants emphasized the importance of forming social connections with other military students and families to buffer military-related stress. More specifically, these findings highlight the potential significance of social connectedness within the family systems, peer networks, and the broader school environment among military youth and their families (Bronfenbrenner 1979). Future research should further examine connectedness in these domains and determine whether adolescents with greater connections to their peers, families, and teachers are able to adjust better to the effects of military-related stress in comparison with military youth who may not have such strong connections. These findings suggest that social connections would serve as an important target for prevention programs and support services for military youth and their families.

It is important to note some limitations when reviewing these findings. The recruitment locations were not randomly selected, but rather were identified by the DOD. Consequently, these findings may only generalize to the youth at these particular bases (Miles and Huberman 1994). An underrepresented, yet increasing population is children of reserve members whose parents become active and deployed (Office of Reserve Affairs 2007). These children may be less connected to bases or other military families, and thus may experience a different level of stress and/or support than the current population. There may also be systematic variation in the experience of some military children based on their affiliation with a specific branch of the military. In order to ensure anonymity, demographic characteristics were not recorded as a part of the focus group data, but only reported for descriptive purposes. The fact that most of the focus groups were conducted on the base may have influenced the participants’ comments about the military and related services. Similarly, some school personnel represented schools on military bases, whereas others were from public schools which serviced a large percentage of military youth.

Despite these limitations, the findings from this study suggest a number of important issues and strategies for helping youth cope with the challenges associated with being in the military. First, it is important to point out that military youth represent a very diverse group, with many successfully adjusting to the life stressors without much difficulty (Jensen et al. 1996; MacDermid et al. 2008). Parents, in fact, noted that the ability of their child to adjust to military-related challenges seemed to depend on the personality of the child, as some children were able to handle the stressors quite well, while others in the same family experienced significant adjustment problems.

Taken together, the findings from this study suggest that approaches aimed at helping families connect with various types of social support hold great promise for long-term adjustment to military life stressors (MacDermid et al. 2008). Specifically, among adolescents, living on a base and being connected to fellow military youth were very important for social support. While parents were mainly concerned with their adolescents’ educational disruptions and suggested establishing curriculum standards, many parents also noted how getting involved with the school and volunteering helped foster better connections for themselves and their children. School personnel, however, reported that more families needed to become aware of the services that are being offered at both the schools and the bases to help them access valuable support. Indeed, in this time of war, with so many parents being deployed to deadly battles overseas, each of these strategies for building social support and promoting successful coping strategies may never be more urgent to implement than right now.

Notes

Acknowledgments

This project was supported by a contract from the Department of Defense Educational Activities to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health through the Military Child Initiative. The authors would also like to thank Ruti Levtov and Beth Marshall for their assistance with data collection. Preparation of this manuscript was supported in part by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (K01CE001333-01). The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Department of Defense or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kristin N. Mmari
    • 1
  • Catherine P. Bradshaw
    • 2
  • May Sudhinaraset
    • 1
  • Robert Blum
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Population, Family and Reproductive HealthJohns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public HealthBaltimoreUSA
  2. 2.Department of Mental Health and the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth ViolenceJohns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public HealthBaltimoreUSA

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