Building resiliency in military children
September 19, 2012
TACOMA, Wash. (Sept. 21, 2012) -- "Military children are resilient, there's no doubt about it, but they're not invulnerable" said Dr. (Lt. Col.) Keith Lemmon, chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine, Madigan Army Medical Center Department of Pediatrics.
With the constant moving, changing of schools and friends and having a parent who's deployed or geographically dispersed, being in a military family can, at times, be exceedingly stressful for children.
While an outgoing adventurous child may thrive on the social challenges posed by moving, making new friends and becoming familiar with new surroundings and environments, a more introspective child may find it difficult to transition so frequently, said Lemmon.
"They may begin to isolate themselves and feel it's not worth the effort to make new close friendships out of the fear they'll have to pull away again in just few years," he said.
In addition, children whose military parents are exceptionally busy with their work or have jobs that require them to travel a lot or live apart from the family may have difficulty staying emotionally connected to their military parent. This could result in excessive worry, sadness and feelings of isolation in the child, according to Lemmon.
"Fortunately, this is rare," he said. "Experienced military parents usually develop good systems of maintaining important connections with their children while they're away doing important and necessary work for the nation. And luckily these days, there are a lot of great tools that allow military parents who are geographically separated to stay in touch, such as email, video calling and frequent texting."
But being in a military family can become overwhelming for any or all of its members. When this happens, according Lemmon, significant depression or an anxiety can occur that may impair healthy functioning within the family, and behavioral health conditions can make it that much harder to deal with the challenges of military life. This is when military families need to reach out for help.
"It's critical that we all receive the message that asking for help, even in military families, is a sign of strong and healthy families, not a sign of weakness," said Lemmon. "The military has gone to extraordinary lengths to provide excellent resources to help service members and families get through exceedingly challenging times."
Parents can foster resilience in their children by helping instill in them the seven C's, described as the essential building blocks of resiliency: competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping skills and control.
Competence is the ability or know-how to handle situations effectively. It's not a vague feeling or hunch that, "I can do this." Competence is acquired through actual experience. Parents should be aware of when and what their children are doing right and give them opportunities to develop important skills so they will feel competent. We undermine competence when we don't allow young people to recover themselves after a fall.
Young people need confidence to be able to navigate the world, think outside the box, and recover from challenges. True confidence, the solid belief in one's own abilities, is rooted in competence. Children gain confidence by demonstrating their competence in real situations. Confidence is not a warm-and-fuzzy self-esteem that supposedly results from telling kids they're special or precious. Children who experience their own competence and know they are safe and protected develop a deep-seated security that promotes the confidence to face and cope with challenges. When parents support children in finding their own islands of competence and building on them, they prepare kids to gain enough confidence to try new ventures and trust their abilities to make sound choices.
Connections with other people, schools, and communities offer young people the security that allows them to stand on their own and develop creative solutions. Children with close ties to family, friends, school and community are more likely to have a solid sense of security that produces strong values and prevents them from seeking destructive alternatives. Family is the central force in any child's life, but connections to civic, educational, religious and athletic groups can also increase a young person's sense of belonging to a wider world and being safe within it.
Young people need a clear sense of right and wrong and a commitment to integrity to ensure they are prepared to make wise choices, contribute to the world, and become stable adults. Children with character enjoy a strong sense of self-worth and confidence. They are more comfortable sticking to their own values and demonstrating a caring attitude toward others.
Young people who contribute to the well-being of others will receive gratitude rather than condemnation. They learn that contributing feels good. Children who understand the importance of personal contribution gain a sense of purpose that can motivate them. They not only take actions and make choices that improve the world, but they also enhance their own competence, character, and sense of connection. Teens who contribute to their communities will be surrounded by reinforcing appreciation instead of the low expectations and condemnation so many teens endure.
Children who learn to cope effectively with stress are better prepared to overcome life's challenges and will be less likely to turn to dangerous quick fixes when stressed. The best protection against unsafe, worrisome behaviors may be a wide repertoire of positive, adaptive coping strategies.
Young people who understand that privileges and respect are earned through demonstrated responsibility learn to make wise choices and feel a sense of control. If parents make all the decisions, children are denied opportunities to learn control. A child who feels "everything always happens to me" tends to become passive, pessimistic or even depressed. He sees control as external, whatever he does really doesn't matter because he has no control of the outcome. A resilient child knows he has internal control. By his choices and actions, he determines the results. He knows that he can make a difference, which further promotes his competence and confidence.
Young people live up or down to expectations set for them. They need adults who believe in them unconditionally and hold them to the high expectations of being compassionate, generous, and creative.