Stress, Attachment and Resilience in Military Children

Military Father and Child hugging
Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Lauren Gleason
By Angela Gray, Ph.D., Clinical Psychology Subject Matter Expert
April 17, 2017

Sometimes, it can be difficult for providers – and parents – to comprehend the amount of stress that military children experience. On top of common childhood stressors that most children face (e.g., increased academic expectations and desire to fit in in a social media-driven culture), military children also deal with other unique stressors related to military life. These can include extended separations from parent(s) during deployment, disrupted relationships due to frequent moves, preoccupied parents who are coping with combat-related illness and injuries, and multiple shifts in family dynamics as the family unit adjusts to service-related changes. It can be a lot to handle and while some children thrive under this stress, others are not as prepared to cope.

The Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study helps us to better understand the long-term effects of stress on children. The study found that almost two-thirds of the 17,000 participants had experienced an ACE (e.g., parental separation or divorce, household mental illness, substance misuse within household) and that risk for development of psychological and physical conditions later in life increased with the number of ACEs experienced. Exposure to ACEs is associated with many negative health outcomes including depression, suicide attempts and illicit drug use.

So how do psychological health providers support military families to raise healthy, resilient children despite the stressors and challenges they may face?

Over the last couple decades, a steady stream of research has identified secure caregiver-child attachment as an important avenue for building children’s capacity for stress management. The findings offer great promise in helping the psychological health community support resilience in military children so they can better cope with the potential stressors of military family life.

Secure attachment is a relationship between caregiver and child in which the child feels connected, secure and protected. In these relationships, the caregivers respond to the child’s affective states appropriately, promptly and consistently. They also help the child to understand and cope with emotions. Secure attachment develops in infancy and by the time infants are six months old, they can anticipate their caregivers’ response to their signals of distress and adjust their own behaviors accordingly.

During early infancy, children also experience a critical period of rapid development in the brain’s right hemisphere which controls the ability to cope with stress, regulate bodily and affective states and develop attachments. This growth is experience dependent, meaning that events – especially interpersonal events – that occur during infancy directly impact the brain’s development, structural organization and expanding adaptive capacity.

As providers, our primary role is to determine how to translate these findings into our clinical practice. It is clear that by helping service members build secure relationships with their children, we can prepare them to be resilient throughout their lives. Here are four steps to get you started:

  1. Encourage your colleagues in primary care and pediatrics to assess stress and trauma in children and refer to specialty behavioral health care as needed
  2. Educate service members on the benefits of secure attachment with their children and offer practical tips on how parents can cultivate secure attachment
  3. Learn more about evidence-based practices for improving parent and child relationships, such as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy
  4. Offer evidence-based treatment to parents for depression, PTSD or other psychological health conditions that they may have that could interfere with their ability to form secure attachments with their children or be a source of stress for their children
For More Information on Childhood Stress, Trauma and Attachment:

The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.

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