Research on the well-being of military children: Future directions

Directions for future research, including secure attachment, variations in abilities to withstand stress and positive youth development

Author: Sarah L. Friedman, PhD

In 2011 the military included over 1.4 million Active Duty personnel. Fifty four percent of them were married and of these, 44 percent had children. Just under half of the 855,867 Reserve and Guards members were married and 43 percent of them had children (Department of Defense, 2011). Many of these families experienced repeated deployments. Some of the personnel have experienced injuries and a small percentage experienced the death of the deployed person. The general public and the mental health community have discussed the effects of long and repeated deployment on service members and their families. While some have mentioned the resiliency of military families and children (Neubert, 2010; Palmer, 2008; Park, 2011; Weber & Weber, 2005), most of the writing focused on concerns pertaining to the risks associated with deployments (e.g., Mmari, Roche, Sudhinaraset, & Blum, 2009), making research on the specific effects of parental deployment, reunion, combat-related injury and death on military children both timely and necessary.

The research literature about the effects of deployment and its aftermath on military connected children is relatively small. Reviews of the literature (Johnson et al. 2007; Department of Defense, 2010; Park, 2011) reveal that there are opportunities to expand research on military children by drawing on theory and empirical findings from research on civilian children and families. Below I will highlight some directions for such future research, categorized under six headings. These are suggested by a recent conference (CNA Workshop on the Scientific Study of Military Children, 2011) and by my reading of the literature. 

1.  Secure attachment

Attachment theory suggests research questions about the effects on children of parental deployment, reunion, injury and death. This theory and the empirical research associated with it are useful in that they address issues of separation and loss in close human relations across the lifespan (Shaver & Cassidy, 2008). According to attachment theory, secure attachment helps children feel confident to explore their environment and to turn to trusted adults for comfort and help. At the 2011 CNA Conference, Dr. Jude Cassidy talked about studies of civilian children indicating that securely attached children have better socio-emotional and developmental outcomes as well as advantages in terms of academic achievement. She showed video clips demonstrating the effectiveness of interventions that promote secure attachment. Since family separations caused by military service pose challenges to secure attachment, it may prove helpful to study their impact and to assess the applicability, in a military context, of civilian programs for addressing secure attachment issues.  

2.  Variations in abilities to withstand stress

Several speakers at the 2011 CNA Conference, including Deborah Phillips, Elysia Davis and Emma K. Adam, addressed the effects of stress on the development of children in general and military children in particular. For example, Dr. Deborah Phillips explained that some children seem to thrive even if their environments are objectively stressful, while others are quite fragile and thrive only under supportive conditions that buffer stress. Ultimately, it seems that it is a combination of an inhibited temperament (a genetic predisposition) and potentially toxic environmental conditions (e.g., violence, abuse, poverty, absence of a parent, parental depression) that exacerbate the effects of stress on child outcomes (e.g. Bates, Maslin and Frankel, 1985; Adam & Chase Lansdale, 2002; Adam et al. 2011). However, a toxic or stressful environment (even when accompanied by an inhibited temperament) can be managed, and its negative consequences ameliorated, if a child can find and form supportive relationships (e.g. Fox, Henderrson, Perez-Edgar and White, 2008; Belsky & Pluess, 2009). These supportive relationships can be provided by parents, extended family members, teachers and even peers. Problems occur when stress levels exceed a family’s capacity for coping. However, interventions aimed at addressing problems as early as possible can help children build resilience. The above suggests that research is needed to better understand how the stresses of military life — deployments, reunions, injury and death — affect different families and children of different ages and psychological profiles. The effects on children with pre-existing psychological or other conditions of being a member of a military family at time of war also need to be examined. 

3.  Positive youth development

According to Dr. Jonathan Zaff who presented at the 2011 CNA Conference, 80 percent of military children are functioning relatively well despite the challenges. Learning about their strengths could be instrumental in helping those who are at risk. We know from research on civilian children that the support of caring adults, safe and constructive places to spend time, a healthy start, an effective education, and opportunities to help others are integral to positive youth development and resilience (Lerner, Almerigi, Theokas and Lerner, 2005; Lerner, Phelps, Forman and Bowers, 2009). Specifically, these factors lead to competence, confidence, character, connections and compassion/caring, which support positive youth development. Therefore, there is a need for a new research focus on positive youth development among military children who experience the deployment of one or two of their parents, the reintegration of the parent after his or her return home, and the possible injury or death of a parent. 

4.  Long-term studies of effects

Several speakers at the 2011 CNA conference noted that the next generation of research on military connected children ought to include studies that track the development of these children over a prolonged period of time. Some effects of dealing with adversity may be transient while others persist and still others may emerge after a period of time. Longitudinal studies will allow investigators to identify the characteristics, behaviors and environments of those who manage to thrive despite the difficulties and those who succumb to the stresses. The knowledge that would be garnered could be the basis on which individualized services could be provided to families and children.

5.  Methodologies

Much of the research regarding military children is based on “samples of convenience,” leaving it unclear if the findings are applicable to other military children (i.e. those who were not like the ones studied). Future research needs to study representative samples of families from the different military branches to determine what aspects of the findings are true across branches and what aspects are due to specific practices/routines of deployment or to different social supports available to members of different military branches. 

A related issue is that the results in studies about military children pertain to the total sample and not to subsamples. Consequently, when the results are not statistically significant across all children it is not known if they are significant for a subsample of children with specific psychological profiles or specific family or community environments. Moreover, effect sizes are not reported, so that it is hard to know if statistically significant findings are small or large in terms of the amount of variance that they explain. 

Past research on military connected children relies heavily on information provided through questionnaires which, although useful, may be biased by respondents’ attitudes or their psychological health. For the conclusions to be valid, researchers studying military connected children and families will do well to complement questionnaire-based research methods with objective methods including observations and standardized age-appropriate measures. 

6.  Evaluating the Success of Existing programs

Programs for military connected families are provided by the Army, National Guards, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Department of Defense, 2011-b). In addition, there are national, state and local initiatives. Some of these programs stand to affect children indirectly through their effects on the families and others target children directly. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2010, Section 722, inquired about the evaluation of existing programs and stimulated the discussion at the 2011 CNA conference regarding the evaluation of service programs to determine how well they reduce stress, increase coping skills, promote resilience and well-being, and support attachments to key figures in the child’s life — all of which are associated with better outcomes for children. There was disagreement among conference speakers over whether such evaluations needed to be methodologically rigorous as suggested by Mr. Jon Baron and Drs. Sharon and Craig Ramey or could be based on educated/professional judgment as suggested by Ms. Lisbeth Schorr. 


Bates, J.E., Maslin, C.A. & Frankel, K.A. (1985).  Attachment security, mother-child interaction, and temperament as predictors of behavior problem ratings at age three years. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 50, 167-193.

Belsky, J., Pluess, M. (2009).  Beyond diathesis stress: Differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Psychological Bulletin®. 135, 885-908 doi: 10.1037/a0017376

CNA Workshop on the Scientific Study of Military Children (2011).

Fox, N.A., Henderson, H.A., Perez-Edgar, K., White, L.K.  (2008). In C.A. Nelson & M. Luciana (Eds.), Handbook of developmental cognitive neuroscience (2nd ed.) Developmental cognitive neuroscience., (pp 839-853). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnson, S.J. et al. (2007). Psychological needs of U.S. military service members and their families: A preliminary report. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Lerner, R. M., Almerigi, J.B., Theokas, C., & Lerner, J.V. (2005). Positive youth development A view of the issues. The Journal of Early Adolescence. 25, 10-16.

Lerner, J.V., Phelps, E., Forman, Y.E., & Bowers, E.P. (2009).  Positive Youth Development Handbook of Adolescent Psychology.  doi: 10.1002/9780470479193.adlpsy001016

Mmari, K., Roche, K.M., Sudhinaraset, M., &  Blum, R. (2009). When a parent goes off to war: Exploring the issues faced by adolescents and their families. Youth & Society, 40 (4), 455-475.

Nuebert, A. (2010, April). Military children show resilience from recurring deployments, other challenges.

Park, N. (2011). Military children and families: Strengths and challenges during peace and war. American Psychologist, 66 (1):65-72. 

U.S. Department of Defense, (2010). The impact of deployment of members of the armed forces on their dependent children. Report to the Senate and House Committees on Armed Services Pursuant to National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal year 2010 Section 571. 

U.S. Department of Defense, (2011). Profile of the military community (PDF, 4.31MB).

U.S. Department of Defense, (2011-b) Annual Report to Congress on Plans for the Department of Defense for the Support of Military Family Readiness (PDF, 513KB). Weber E., & Weber, D. (2005) .Geographic relocation frequency, resilience and military adolescent behavior. Military Medicine, 170(7), 638-642.

Author Bio 

Sarah L. Friedman, PhDSarah L. Friedman, PhD, is a research director for Health Care Research and Policy Center of CNA and has organized conferences in 2011 and 2012 on military children and families. She is a member of the Military Child Education Coalition Science Advisory Board, and is also the recipient of a 2003 American psychological Association (APA) Meritorious Research Service Commendations. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Society, American Psychological Association, the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology, and the Society of General Psychology. She is a recipient of two Merit awards at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Currently she is the Principal Investigator for the Legacy for Children Follow-up study, supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Finally, she is the liaison for the Developmental Psychology Division of APA to its Committee on Children Youth and Families.