Military Families: What We Know and What We Don't Know


Mar 2, 2012

A returning U.S. soldier getting hugged by his family

Photo by SPC Pastora Y. Hall/U.S. Army

This commentary originally appeared in National Council on Family Relations Report Magazine on March 2, 2012.

Today's soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and Coast Guard members have faced unprecedented stresses, not the least of which is repeated, extended deployments to hostile zones far away from home and friends and families. These stresses have been captured by popular media, journalists, politicians, military leaders, and, perhaps most important for readers of the NCFR Report, family scholars. Family researchers—including social workers, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others—have brought critical thinking, advanced methodologies, and policy analysis to a unique population that, in the past, has not often received the kind of attention that their civilian counterparts have enjoyed. (For the record, research on military families is not new, but I would argue that it has been renewed over the past decade.) Based on this reinvigorated line of research, my goal in this piece is to provide the reader, who may or may not be familiar with this work, a taste of what we know, and what we don't, about military families.

What We Know

Select references for this section can be found in Hosek (2011).

Military Kids Experience Some Problems More Often than Their Civilian Peers

Evidence suggests that kids in military families, especially those who have experienced longer periods of time away from a deployed parent, have significantly higher rates of problems, especially emotional and behavioral difficulties, than non-military kids.

RAND's Children on the Homefront study shows that children of currently deployed parents have higher rates of anxiety symptoms than a comparable national sample of same-aged children (by roughly 4%). Other studies have reported similar results for behavior problems (e.g., aggressiveness) and internalizing symptoms (e.g., sadness). An important predictor of how well a child will cope with a parent's deployment is the health and well-being of the child's nondeployed parent.

Despite Military-Related Stress, Resilience is the Norm among Military Families

While children (and to some degree parents) in military families experience a decline in well-being, particularly during parental absence due to a deployment, most families find ways to cope. Prior studies have shown that, during peacetime, kids from military families do not differ from their nonmilitary peers in terms of mental health and behavioral outcomes, and in some cases, fare better on these outcomes. Other studies have found that, although children may have elevated symptoms during a deployment, the severity of symptoms often does not reach a clinical threshold. And recent studies have found limited (and mixed) evidence of an impact of deployment on specific academic outcomes such as engagement, achievement, and performance. Taken together, this research suggests that negative outcomes among military families are not inevitable.

National Guard and Reserve Families Often Face Distinctive Issues

Deployments are stressful for all families, but a growing body of research suggests that they can be even more stressful for families who are part of the approximately 1.1 million service members who are part of National Guard or Reserve units. These families often live far removed from the built-in resources and support systems that are provided to active component families who live on, or near, a military base. Children of reserve component members may be the only child in their entire school who has a parent in the military. As a result of their situations, Guard and Reserve families often do not know what to expect when a deployment occurs, nor do they always know where to go for assistance if and when it is needed. Further, teachers, pediatricians, psychologists, and other service providers in those communities often do not have the military information (e.g., cultural awareness, knowledge of and access to resources) needed to support these families.

And What We Don't Know

Admittedly, we do know more than the handful of things outlined above. But despite the healthy amount of the existing literature on military families, there are a number of outstanding questions that for one reason or another (largely due to a lack of longitudinal data on military families, see Segal & Kleykamp, 2011) have not been addressed.

What Exactly is a Military Family?

Obviously, it's a dad who is in the military, a mom, and a kid or two, right? Not quite. Although the two-parent married family is still the norm among military families, it is not the only type. Women represent between 15% and 20% of the overall military population, depending on branch of service (i.e., Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard) and pay grade (i.e., officer versus enlisted) (see Demographics 2009, 2009). Single-parent families represent just over 5% of the current military population (Hosek, 2011). Unmarried and unpartnered service members are an understudied population, and it is not at all clear what family means to these individuals. Is it the family of origin (e.g., parents, siblings), a significant other, or even Fido or Fluffy? And with the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, LGBT families, which to date have been the focus of a very limited amount of research, may see a substantial increase in attention from family scholars.

What Makes a Resilient Military Family Resilient?

As noted above, the existing body of research on military families suggests that most families are indeed able to cope with the stresses associated with being a part of the military. Yet, we do not know exactly what it is that makes these families resilient. Do they have innate skills that make them some-how different from their civilian peers? That is, are more resilient families selected into the military in the first place? (I suspect the answer is no, but the jury is still out.) Does the military somehow inoculate families against the deleterious effects of stress? There has been a lot of focus on strengthening these "resilient factors" but how effective have those efforts been? What exactly do military families do, and what resources do they possess, that make them able to handle deployments, permanent changes in station (or other relocations due to military service), parental and spousal absence, and the risk of injury or death?

What Are the Keys to Successful Reintegration After Deployment?

In a similar vein, we actually know very little about what factors pave the way to a smooth reintegration process after a family member returns from a deployment. To date, military family researchers have primarily focused on the rapid cycle of deployment and reintegration. But with ever-increasing numbers of service members returning home with no new deployment in sight, we must now focus on the long-term reintegration of service members within their families and society. My colleagues at RAND have reported that roughly 20% of troops returning from Iraq or Afghanistan met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and 20% met the criteria for experiencing a probable traumatic brain injury during their deployment (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008). Arguably, these types of "invisible wounds" are more difficult to manage than more obvious physical injuries. Given the types of injuries that recent veterans may experience, possible exposure to horrific events on the battlefield, and being away from home for months at a time, how do families cope when a loved one returns?

What Happens to Military Kids During the Transition to Adulthood and Beyond?

A 10-year-old child whose parent deployed in 2001, soon after 9-11, would today be 20 years old. How is that child functioning today? Is he or she in college, or working at a full time job? Has that child joined the military? Is he or she married, cohabiting, or a parent? How does experiencing a parental deployment influence the childparent relationship once the parent comes home and the child grows into adulthood? We simply do not know the answers to these life course questions. In some respects these may be "nice to know" questions, but if you scratch the surface you quickly realize that the answers have implications for family formation patterns, fertility rates, educational attainment, unemployment, poverty, etc. Furthermore, they could have dramatic implications for the future of our all-volunteer military, where legacy service members are common (Ferris, 1981; Segal & Segal, 2004).

How Do We Integrate Research and Civilian and Military Services to Provide the Most Effective Support for Military Families?

Finally, when it comes to policy, we have not yet been completely successful in integrating research and support services. Last April I attended the 2011 Family Resilience Conference cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). At this point you may be asking yourself why the USDA cohosted a conference with the DoD? I will spare you the details, but basically land-grant universities (e.g., Penn State, Ohio, Cornell) have mandatory Cooperative Extension Services with a mission to (more or less) serve the public good (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2011; see Proclamation, 2011). In this case, that public good meant getting researchers, policymakers, and service providers in one room and forcing them to talk to each other. In many respects I think we were all a little outside of our comfort zones. But what I quickly realized is that as a researcher I have to find a way to connect with these folks. I cannot expect them to read the most recent copy of JMF or Armed Forces and Society. (I rarely have time to do that myself!) And by the same token, from their perspective on the ground, they need to tell me what works and what does not, what is feasible to implement and what is not, and what helps and what hurts.

Forward, March!

Given the gaps outlined above, how do we start to fill them? One way to potentially address many of these issues is with the use of longitudinal data, of which we have surprisingly little when it comes to military families. That's why I am so excited to be a part of RAND's Deployment Life Study. Over the next 3 years we will follow some 2,000 military families, both active and reserve components, across the deployment cycle from preparing, to being away, to returning home. And even more exciting is that we will have data from three family members—service members, their spouses, and their children, roughly three times per year. Three years x three times a year x three family members—that's 27 surveys per family. By collecting rich data on military experiences, family functioning, and mental and physical health, we hope to be able to tackle some of the tricky questions that remain elusive to military family researchers.

Certainly my colleagues and I at RAND are not the only researchers investigating issues surrounding military families. The Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University is conducting a longitudinal study of National Guard families. And in 2010 the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, with the help of the Defense Manpower Data Center, launched the Military Family Life Project, a study of roughly 30,000 service members and their spouses. A follow-up survey will take place during the next year. And the First Lady's Joining Forces initiative may provide more chances for researchers to interact with peers outside academia. These and other similar efforts should keep us all busy for a while.

I may be biased, but I think it is an incredibly exciting time to be a family scholar interested in the health and well-being of our military families. Arguably, never before in our nation's history have our service members and their families been so challenged and never before have their struggles (and successes) been the topic of so much scholarly attention. The work we do makes a real difference for these families—as a policy researcher I am lucky enough to see that first hand. And the work we do in understanding how these families confront stress has implications for the larger body of family stress and coping research.

Although we know a lot about what it means to be a military family, our work is not done. It will likely be difficult to prioritize the many unanswered questions in a constrained resource environment like the one we have now. Nonetheless, we must continue to expand our knowledge base, not only because it represents a general contribution to the scientific community, but also because it's a way to say "thank you" to those who most definitely deserve it.

This article reprinted courtesy of the National Council on Family Relations.

Sarah O. Meadows is a social scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

Note: Many thanks to my colleagues Benjamin Karney and Anita Chandra for providing feedback on this piece.


Demographics 2009: Profile of the military community (Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, Military Community and Family Policy, 2009),

Ferris, J. H. (1981). The all-volunteer force—Recruiting from military families. Armed Forces and Society, 7, 545-559.

Hosek, J. (2011). How is deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan affecting U.S. service members and their families? An overview of early RAND research on the topic. OP-316-DOD. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Proclamation in recognition of Department of Defense/Department of Agriculture extension military partnership [Proclamation]. (2011).

Segal, D. R., & Kleykamp, M. (2011). Longterm consequences of modern military service,

Segal, D. R., & Segal, M. W. (2004). America's military population. Population Bulletin, 59.

Tanielian, T. L., & Jaycox, L. (2008). Invisible wounds of war: Psychological and cognitive injuries, their consequences, and services to assist recovery. MG-720-CCF. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (2011). About Us: Cooperative Extension System Offices,

White House. (2011). Joining forces.

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