Military families under stress

Drummet, A.R., Coleman, M., Cable, S., (2003). Military families under stress: Implications for family life education. Family Relations, 53, 3, 279-287.

Every branch of service has their own bumper sticker about what job is the toughest in the military.  The one common denominator between them all is that they do not mention the person in uniform.  They say: Mom, Wife, Girlfriend, Husband, Son, Daughter, or any other family member designation.  This is because when a service member leaves their family to defend their country, family members are left behind to ask themselves, “How will I get through this?”.  Or, “Will my service member come home alive?”.

As of 2001 60% of service members had family responsibilities (Drummet, Coleman, & Cable, 2003).  This is a relatively new issue, because in the past, the military was primarily made up of single men.  Since the evolution to an all volunteer force, the military has become a very viable career option for many Americans.  Add this to an economy where jobs are scarce and people are trying to support a family and that percentage from 2001 increases.  This increase brings family issues to the forefront of discussion of military issues.

The article read for this paper posits that military families experience the same common issues that civilian families face every day.  The only difference is that they operate within a different social structure.  The more unique stressors faced by military families are repeated relocations, sometimes internationally, frequent separations from members, and then family reorganization due to service members leaving and returning.

Family relocation or “permanent change of station” (PCS), as it is called, can be a major stressor for all family members.  Research shows that children are the most resilient by reporting: children are less affected because of the structured environment such as standardized school curriculum, and base housing similarities.  Some research has found that can have positive affects on children’s academics.  In some instances, children will use relocation as a way to have a fresh start and reinvent themselves.  Adults on the other hand become emotionally and physically exhausted by relocation.  The loss of the adult’s social network is also a significant stressor.  In times of great stress, a resilient child might find themselves being the confidant or social support of a parent, which can lead to other major issues in family dynamics.

During times of separation, military caregivers must find solutions to many problems especially if they are single parent or a dual-military couple.  During these times, caregivers must find temporary guardians, and other accommodations for their loved ones.  In some cases, children with parents overseas may display mild to severe behavior problems in an attempt to cope with the stress.  Research shows however, that children will mirror a parent’s reaction to stressful situations.  Should the parent panic, the child will reciprocate that emotion.  This change in family dynamics is sure to throw off homeostasis for the family.

It is important to remember that when a service member is reunited with his or her family, this does not magically fix the stressors felt by separation.  If the family is lucky enough to establish homeostasis while the service member is absent, they will have to do it all over again when the service member returns.  Some of the systems and roles within the family will have to change, such as: family roles and boundaries, household management, social supports, possible parent rejection or anxiety, and any physical or mental conditions that may be present.

As stated earlier, the military family has more in common with the civilian family than not.  As a matter of social work practice, clinicians must work with the family to support their goals while working within the military macro system.  The article demonstrates and lists the issues of family dynamics within the military family and has provided some insight into the inner workings of the family.  The social worker must take this insight into the clinical setting and use the information provided here to look for problems that the family may be experiencing.

As more and more service members return from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of them will require assistance.  Some will seek out the help, and others will be force to receive help.  No matter how the service member and family ends up in the clinician’s office, it is important for the clinician to understand the military, family, and culture that they live in every day.  This article has provided information that is vital to understanding the experiences of the micro-military-family within the context of the macro-military-system.

Personal Reflection

I have never considered the military family to be anything like the civilian family.  This article has changed my mind in a way that allows civilian concepts of family dynamics to be applied to military families, with small changes here and there.  I found that the most interesting part of the article to be the discussion of parent-child interactions within familial subsystems.  The idea that children mirror and mimic their parent’s response to stressor similarly is fascinating because of its implications for parental empowerment.  If a clinician can work with the parental system and learn to regulate stress, the family could theoretically maintain a better homeostasis making military transitions easier on the family as a whole.


Drummet, A.R., Coleman, M., Cable, S., (2003). Military families under stress: Implications for family life education. Family Relations, 53, 3, 279-287.



Hall, K.L., (n.d.). Counseling military families.

This article focuses on four major concepts regarding counseling military families and the unique system in which these families live.  The concepts are: military cultural competencies, understanding military characteristics including the warrior society, reasons for joining the military, and lastly, understanding honor and sacrifice as a lifestyle concept.  Obviously these are not the only issues faced when working with military families; this is just what the author considers the most important.

With regards to serving our men and women in the armed forces, it is important to consider when a clinician’s personal beliefs or political leanings are shaping a biased view of the military.  It is important to remember that social workers must strive to identify any biases and ensure that they do not interfere with therapy.  Because the military is such a unique culture it can be hard for a civilian clinician to understand how it works.  It is the clinician’s job to ask questions and not make assumptions about how things work.  If the clinician is a veteran, it will be important for that clinician to understand that not all military units operate the same way.  Only with and unbiased mind and judgment can the clinician ensure that they are providing the best care.

When working with veterans and their families it should be noted that the military structure, rigid and firm, will influence not just the person in uniform, but the family as a whole.  Some of the affects of the warrior society can be seen in parenting styles.  Parents may not tolerate questions, discourage individuality in children, and require frequent violations of children’s privacy.  The reasoning behind this is that this is what the service member has experienced as they “grew up” in the military, starting in boot camp.  As the family develops into the military life there can sometimes be a mentality that the family “belongs” to the military, which is not far from the truth at times.  Evidence of this can be demonstrated by the military garnishing wages, restricting parents to base, and other military sanctions.

With all of these rules, regulations, and power that the military holds over service members, the next logical question is, why join?  The author identifies the four primary reasons as: family tradition, warrior mentality, escaping life, and benefits.   These are mostly self explanatory, except for escaping life.  Not all military personnel have come to serve their country; some have joined to escape bad situations at home.  As a social worker it will be important to remember that some problems families face will be the result of poor modeled parenting or generational parenting styles.

The last and possibly most important topic to discuss is male psychology especially when looking at honor and sacrifice.  These two personality traits are the corner stones to military service.  As social workers we know that everyone is different, but in this section, discussing male psychology we will generalize our statements.  A clinician must respect and be understanding of this honor society and never underestimate the significance of shame in the military.  To be called a bad warrior is possibly the greatest insult in the military.  To question the warrior status of any service member could permanently damage any therapeutic relationship.  “The passion for honor and conformity may, however, be at odds with the accepted practice of therapy that include openness and critical examination of a client’s assumptions about life” (Hall, n.d.).  It is again the job of the clinician to find interventions that will work within the world of the military and culture of the family in order to impact change.

Personal Reflection

This article provides the reader with a rubric and list of litmus tests that should be used and considered when working with any military family.  This article would most likely be most helpful to the civilian clinician in assisting with understanding military norms.  This is not to say that the article is comprehensive, because it is not even close.  This article is more of a starting point for the clinician to work with in order to ask the appropriate questions and gain further information.  As far as working this article into the big picture of social work, it is a small portion of information.  It is important to remember that not all service members will fit into this example of military life.  Clinicians are bound to run into many acceptations to these principals.

It is my opinion that the section on male psychology was the most interesting.  Mostly because I do not see myself fitting into the picture that was painted.  I believe that masculine psychology is much more complex, and that the concept of honor spans further than just the military.  I also believe that there are female warriors that may fit this mold just as well, if not better than some of the men do.

I believe it will be important to expand upon the thoughts and principals outlined in this article.  The military is a unique and complex creature that must be studied if it is to be sustained.  The military must learn that the family is the foundation from which the warrior will gain strength and work harder, smarter, and faster.  When the familial system is working at optimum homeostasis, the military will most certainly reap the benefits.  With that said, I hope at some point to be able to intelligently expand on the principals outlined in this article and to expand the knowledgebase of those who want to serve our brothers and sisters in arms.


Hall, K.L., (n.d.). Counseling military families.

About HealthShire

HealthShire is an online mental health resource. We help patients find local mental health services and aid mental health professionals with marketing, mental health news and business support.

Are you a mental health provider? Find out how you can publish your articles and reach a new audience on Submit an Article Now Not a professional? You can still submit your story.