Teens in military families: Two scholars explain the complexities

 Mallory Lucier-Greer, PhD, LMFT
Assistant Professor
Department of Family and Child Sciences, Florida State University

 Haltiwanger Distinguished Professor
Department of Human Development and Family Science, The University of Georgia
Question: What do you get when you combine a seasoned expert on military family life and an emerging family scholar who has a lot of energy and even more questions?
Answer: Countless laughs.  Frequent Google-ing to fill in some gaps in generation-specific knowledge. And some exciting research on adolescents in military families.

In 2012, I “signed on the dotted line” and accepted a post-doc position with Jay to work in the Family and Community Resilience Lab at UGA to study military family life.  Three and a half years later, now in different states, we continue to ask important questions regarding vulnerabilities inherent to military life and adolescent well-being.   The crux of our work, though, is identifying protective factors that facilitate healthy development.  In effect, we study the intersections of vulnerability and resilience. We seize every opportunity (including this article!) to educate scholars and service providers about the adaptability and resilience demonstrated by military families.  We recognize the risk factors and investigate the unique challenges of military life for adolescent development, while simultaneously utilizing a strengths-based approach to understand adolescent functioning and identify points of intervention for adolescents in military families.

Examining the Impact of Military-Related Stressors

Mady Segal and her colleagues (Segal, Lane, & Fisher, 2015) present a life course conceptual model designed to capture the effects of military life for service members and their families.  The model positions individuals in relation to crucial life events, expected individual and family life course processes, and the military life course of the service member.  Accordingly, to understand the well-being of adolescents in military families, this model and much of the discourse on military family life reminds researchers and service providers that these adolescents contend with normative stressors of development as well as military-specific stressors.

In our own work, we have identified military-specific stressors from the extant literature and worked to disentangle their salience in predicting adolescent well-being, namely mental health, academic performance, and self-efficacy (Lucier-Greer, Arnold, et al., 2014; Lucier-Greer, O’Neal, et al., 2014; Mancini, Bowen, O’Neal, & Arnold, 2015).  A prevailing and largely inaccurate notion in the military family literature is that military adolescents are not faring well in large part because they are embedded in an environment characterized by change and stress (e.g. Barker & Berry, 2009; Flake et al., 2009; Reed et al., 2011).  However, our findings suggest that the proportion of military youth deemed “highest risk” for mental health and interpersonal challenges is similar to non-military samples of adolescents (approximately 7-10%; Lucier-Greer, Mancini, et al., 2015).  Furthermore, we find that the influence of military context on adolescents is not clear cut.

Examining data from relatively large samples of adolescents (N = 1,036; N = 389), we have found that commonly cited military stressors, including parental deployment and frequent transitions, were not universally associated with poorer outcomes (e.g., Lucier-Greer, Arnold, et al., 2014).  These findings are consistent with meta-analytic data that concluded the relationship between parental deployment and overall adjustment was “virtually nonexistent” for adolescents (Card et al., 2011) and spurred our interest in how to conceptualize stress and pinpoint salient stressors.  Interestingly, these contemporary findings demonstrating variability in the experiences of both children and adolescents in the face of family transition and change, parallel the research of Reuben Hill, one of the first family scientists who studied military families, those of the World War II Era (Hill, 1949; Mancini & Bowen, 2015).  One of Hill’s conclusions was that serving in the military did not produce a family crisis in every case, and in fact for some families, parental absence had either neutral or positive results (Mancini & Bowen, 2015).

The manner in which risk and vulnerability are conceptualized has implications for understanding the impact of military-specific stressors (Lucier-Greer, O’Neal, et al., 2014).  Importantly, research on adolescents in military families must be more theory-driven, rather than problem-driven, if this area of research is to advance. As alluded to above, some models examine the unique or direct impact of stressors; these are known as additive models of stress.  In our work, we found that some military-related risk factors (detailed below) were directly associated with adverse adolescent outcomes, such as anxiety and depression.  These military-related risk factors included having multiple military parents and having an enlisted parent (enlisted meaning ranks below those of officers, including Privates, Corporals, and Sergeants).  These variables speak to the structure and resources available (or unavailable) to certain military families.  For example, having dual military parents may present families with structural stressors, including lack of childcare or supervision, given the dual-career orientation and responsibilities of the parents.  Furthermore, rank is a complex variable that reflects a family’s opportunity structure and available resources (Booth et al. 2007).  Other work in this area highlights this finding, such that enlisted personnel are more likely to report lower levels of education (Maclean & Edwards 2010), greater financial difficulties, being of minority status, and lower levels of satisfaction with military life (Booth et al. 2007); all of these have implications for the family system and spillover into adolescent well-being.  Other military-related stressors, such as living outside the US and living 30+ minutes away from an installation, also had some noteworthy (albeit marginally significant) implications for well-being.  These variables reflect access to familiar others and access to available resources, respectively.  Still further, other variables, such as parental deployment and frequent transitions, did not have a unique, direct impact on well-being.  We do not downplay the significance of parental absence or contextual change, but rather push the discourse on military family life to consider the possibility that deployments and transitions are less salient than expected by researchers because they are part of the general expectations about military life.

Another way to conceptualize vulnerability is through cumulative models of stress.  The supposition is that an accumulation of stressors has implications for healthy development.  This does not assume that stressors are inherently equal, but rather when stressors pile-up, they have an adverse impact on outcomes.  In our work we have provided some initial evidence for conceptualizing military-related stress from a cumulative perspective, such that higher levels of cumulative stress were associated with poorer mental health and academic performance.  What does this mean for conceptualizing stress?  We interpret this to mean that even when certain risk factors do not appear to have an independent, direct effect on youth outcomes as illustrated in the additive model, in the presence of other risk factors, these variables may be salient determinants of wellbeing. For example, although parental deployment was not associated with poorer outcomes in the additive model, parental deployment may reduce youth well-being when combined with other risk factors, such as living outside the US or having dual military parents.  However, only focusing on military-related stressors fails to provide a full understanding of coping and resilience in adolescence.

In line with Segal and colleagues’ (2015) life course model of military life, those interested in studying or serving adolescents in military families are strongly encouraged to account for normative stressors such as social isolation, minority status, parents’ marital status and family structure, and family processes (Arnold et al., 2015; Lucier-Greer, O’Neal, 2014).  Until theorists and researchers account for normative, non-military stressors in their studies of adolescents in military families, there will continue to be an “over-attribution” as it pertains to how the military and military family environment affect youth.  In practical applications, when trying to assess well-being within military families, researchers can enhance their understanding of the landscape of military life by inquiring about diverse aspects of military life. For example, the expectations, responsibilities, and opportunities for enlisted servicemen and servicewomen are very different from those in the officer ranks. Living outside of the Continental United States is also very different as compared to living on an installation abroad in a foreign country (for example, there are strict limitations on employment opportunities). We note that within military populations there is substantial variability, consequently military members and their families as a homogeneous group is an error. Additionally, service providers may choose to inquire about military-related and normative stressors and examine how the pileup of seemingly benign factors may relate to challenges in youth development.

Identifying Protective Factors and Promoting Resilience

Recently, Bowen, Martin and Mancini (2013) have discussed the resilience of military families, with particular emphasis on the application of relevant family science theories, including symbolic interaction and life-course approaches, as well as the more focused family stress theories. Highlighted is the necessity of concurrently examining positive and negative factors that influence families and the individuals in them, including adolescents. Otherwise a thorough understanding of adolescents in military families is absent. At the same time the glass is half-empty (stress and negative outcomes), it is also half-full (resources, resilience, and positive outcomes).

Our work and the work of others demonstrates that military-related stressors enhance susceptibility to adverse outcomes, including poorer mental health of individual family members and strained interpersonal relationships between family members (see Milburn & Lightfoot, 2013 for a review).  Yet, military families are resilient and adaptable (Mancini & Bowen, 2015; Oshri, Lucier-Greer, O’Neal, Arnold, Mancini, & Ford, 2015).  To identify protective factors that promote resilience, research has focused on understanding how families respond to persistent stressors.  One important distinction that has emerged is the family’s use of available resources and their connection to others.  The use of formal systems (e.g., military and civilian community agencies, the unit chain of command; see Huebner, Mancini, Bowen, & Orthner, 2009) and especially informal networks (e.g., extended family, friends, work associates, neighbors) is a primary focus with regard to prevention efforts to enhance military family resilience (Bowen et al., 2000; Bowen et al., 2013; Mancini & Bowen, 2013).

In terms of adolescents in military families, engaging in formal systems, such as community programs, military-sponsored events, and religious activities, was associated with better academic performance and higher levels of persistence (Lucier-Greer, Arnold, et al., 2014; Richardson, Mallette, O’Neal, & Mancini, 2016). Participation in youth programs does make a difference, and in some ways mitigates otherwise troublesome experiences in adolescence (Richardson et al., 2016). These activities provide an opportunity for adolescents to connect with invested and caring adults (e.g., adolescent service providers, youth minsters) and other adolescents who may be experiencing similar stressors, those related to the military context, as well as those part and parcel of being an adolescent.  Furthermore, strong, informal networks were associated with better academic performance, higher levels of persistence, and lower levels of depression (Lucier-Greer, Arnold, et al., 2014).  This measure of social provisions encompasses dyadic support (e.g., friendships, a reliable alliance) as well as perceptions of social integration, and thus speaks to a more proximal level of influence.

Our team has assessed how relationships function in the lives of youth, within 273 military families (adolescents and their parents). Relationship functions include being able to rely on another when certain needs prevail, feeling closely connected with others and having a sense of security, knowing persons who are good at providing advice and counsel, based on their expertise, having relationships that affirm a sense of self, having opportunities to show caring for others, and a sense of community with others who share common interests (Cutrona & Russell, 1987; Mancini, Bowen, O’Neal, & Arnold, 2015). These elements of relationships become anchor points that are core to building resilience.

Examining whether individuals in military families access support when faced with chronic and acute stress has import implications for predicting well-being and adjustment.  Service providers may also utilize this information to assess the social integration and level of connection demonstrated by their clients.  Evaluations of cumulative stress (the presence of multiple chronic stressors) and signs of social isolation serve as a red flags for the well-being.  Practitioners may also apply this knowledge regarding salient formal systems or informal networks of support to identify areas of intervention for military families, particularly adolescents, who are at risk or experiencing poor mental health and daily functioning.  Encouraging social engagement and healthy interpersonal relationships many serve to promote resilient outcomes.

Theory and Research on Adolescents in Military Families: Moving Forward

We argue for next steps in theorizing and research to adopt a more inclusive way of thinking about adolescents in military families, as well as a more nuanced approach to inquiry.
  • First, we recommend that theories be at the forefront of inquiry, rather than largely an afterthought once the data are collected and analyzed. We recognize that being problem-driven is an attractive approach for deciding what to research and how to investigate a given topic, yet in a larger sense it is not helpful for moving a discipline along to be better at explanation.
  •  Second, and relatedly, we promote accessing those theories that are rich in context, whether they are focused on military families (Segal, Lane, & Fisher, 2015), or more generally applied to family systems (Boss, Bryant, & Mancini, in press). Families, and the individuals that comprise them, are affected by multiple contexts, some normative and mundane, and others unusual and dramatic.
  • Third, we especially promote the use of resilience frameworks. For example, there is a very recent one presented by Henry, Morris, and Harrist (2015) that is comprehensive, or a more focused resilience framework by Huebner, Mancini, Wilcox, Grass, and Grass (2007) which examines ambiguous loss and adolescents in military families.
  • Fourth, we encourage process-oriented research that accounts for variance among families, including equifinality (multiple pathways leading to similar results) and multifinality (similar pathways leading to substantially different results), to understand how vulnerability and protective factors manifest differently across families (see Cicchetti & Rogosch, 1996).
  • Fifth and finally, we encourage diverse stakeholders to engage in informed dialogues of military family life and adolescent well-being to promote healthy practices and the application of current research.

Mallory Lucier-Greer is an Assistant Professor of Family and Child Sciences at Florida State University.  She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and her research focuses on stress and resilience among vulnerable families. By identifying resilient processes and protective factors, this work has direct application for promoting evidence-based practice in educational and clinical settings.

Jay A. Mancini is the Haltiwanger Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Science at The University of Georgia. He is also Emeritus Professor of Human Development at Virginia Tech. A Fellow of the National Council on Family Relations, Mancini studies the intersections of vulnerability and resilience. He is the editor of Pathways of human development: Explorations of change (with Karen. A. Roberto), published by Lexington Books (2009), and the author (with Pauline Boss and Chalandra M. Bryant) of Family stress management: A contextual approach(3rd Ed.), published by Sage (2016).
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