by Jennifer Rea, PhD
Why do some military families bounce back after stressful transitions (e.g., transitioning into civilian life), while others struggle to readjust?
Cover image and logo– used with permission from the MilitaryTimes.com
Military life is dynamic and interrelated with its own life challenges (1). Service members and their families face unique stressors in the various transitions they face (e.g., frequent moves). While, many have the ability to cope with and overcome transition difficulties, other military families may need additional support.
As military families face more stressors and hurdles, they often emerge stronger, more loving and more purposeful in their lives (2). Through each transitional challenge, many military families are expected to maintain resilience all the while minimize family vulnerabilities (3).
What is Resilience?
Resilience “occurs in the face of adversity and is reflected in individuals and families ‘bouncing back’ after hardship”(2,3). As a “process that occurs over the life course” (4). resilience is the capacity to adapt to several new transitions and challenges (5).
Resilient Individuals and Families are not Islands unto Themselves.
Individuals are embedded in families and families are embedded in communities (6). That is, individual resilience is dependent upon the systems the individual interacts with, including one’s family and their community (7). For example, military unit support and community connectedness have been found to be related to family well-being and adaptation to transitions (3).
Tools for Building Individual and Family Resilience
Family processes; things families do (e.g., effective communication), are important to identify as they influence individual and family resilience (8). As overlooked tools, some family processes are qualities an individual (or family) possesses allowing them to flourish during adversity (9).
To build resilience among military families, we must help them recognize their untapped capabilities and reconnect them to sources of sustenance and nurturance. By doing so, we can scaffold their way to becoming more resilient through successfully navigating military life transitions (9).
Cover image and logo– used with permission from the U.S. Dept of Defense.
Below are practical applications for strengthening individual and family processes for resilience. These implications are a collection of examples from various researchers who have studied resilience and military families (2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12).
Implications for Building Resilience in Military Families
- Assist family members in drawing upon various strengths. For example, the ability to reduce conflict during a taxing deployment.
- Help families adapt to a new normal. Assist them in providing clear information for adapting to the change; helping them to accept the things they cannot change.
- Support connectedness through fostering nurturing and loving relationships among all family members and by making community support available and accessible.
- Invite all family members to engage in joint participation and shared decision making. For example, deciding as a family where to vacation when the service member returns from training.
- Help identify potential triggers that may evoke stressful memories. This is especially important to consider in service members with posttraumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.
- Enhance shared meaning making and making meaning of adversity. For example, allow family members to share personal perspectives on challenges and successes experienced during deployment.
- Allow family members to openly share positive and negative emotions experienced throughout various military transitions. This could be done by reaching out to family members at several time points during each transition.
- Aid in identifying and anticipating stressful transitions or situations. For example, have families create a list of the potential challenges (or joys) they may experience when relocating (e.g., PCSing overseas).
- Coach families to develop a shared method for checking in on one another’s emotional or stress status. For instance, parents can check in with their children by asking them to share their fears and joys during deployments.
- Support military families in utilizing healthy coping strategies, such as relaxation or distraction; diverging away from drinking alcohol or spending excessive amounts of money as a means of coping.
- Foster a positive outlook through hope, faith, or optimism. For example, help family members gain a sense of personal perspective that their life has meaning and purpose.
- Encourage the reestablishment of individual and family routines and rituals while the service member is away. This might include the continuation of family game night or reassigning household responsibilities.
- Finally, we can teach family members how to create and set forth on personal goals in hopes of fostering self-efficacy and a sense of purpose.
For more resources on helping military families maintain resilience and overcome transition-related challenges, be sure to head on over to our Family Transitions page! Also, be sure to take a look at our upcoming Resilience Series which will focus on promoting protective factors to support personal, family and community resilience. This three-part webinar series will take place on August 20th, 22nd, and 27th, so be sure to RSVP today!
This article was written by Jennifer Rea, PhD and military spouse to an Active Duty Marine. Jenny consults with the MFLN Family Transitions team to support professional development for military family service providers. You may find more blogs, podcasts and webinars from Family Transitions here. We invite you to engage with Family Transitions on Twitter @MFLNFT and with MFLN on Facebook @MilitaryFamilies.
1. Masten, A. S. (2013). Competence, risk, and resilience in military families: Conceptual commentary. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16(3), 278-281.
2. Walsh, F. (2016). Applying a family resilience framework in training, practice, and research: Mastering the art of the possible. Family Process, 55(4), 616-632.
3. Mancini, J. A., O’Neal, C. W., Martin, J. A., & Bowen, G. L. (2018). Community social organization and military families: Theoretical perspectives on transitions, contexts, and resilience. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 10(3), 550-565.
4. Meadows, S. O., Beckett, M. K., Bowling, K., Golinelli, D., Fisher, M. P., Martin, L. T., … & Osilla, K. C. (2016). Family resilience in the military: Definitions, models, and policies. Rand Health Quarterly, 5(3),12.
5. Masten, A. S. (2018). Resilience theory and research on children and families: Past, present, and promise. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 10(1), 12-31.
6. Masten, A. S., & Cicchetti, D. (2016). Resilience in development: Progress and transformation. Developmental Psychopathology, 1-63.
7. Ungar, M. (2018). Systemic resilience: principles and processes for a science of change in contexts of adversity. Ecology and Society, 23(4):34.
8. Clark, M., O’Neal, C. W., Conley, K., & Mancini, J. A. (2018). Resilient family processes, personal reintegration, and subjective well-being outcomes for military personnel and their family members. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 88(1), 99–111. https://.org/10.1037/ort0000278
9. Saltzman, W. R., Lester, P., Beardslee, W. R., Layne, C. M., Woodward, K., & Nash, W. P. (2011). Mechanisms of risk and resilience in military families: Theoretical and empirical basis of a family-focused resilience enhancement program. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14(3), 213-230.
10. Gewirtz, A. H., Pinna, K. L., Hanson, S. K., & Brockberg, D. (2014). Promoting parenting to support reintegrating military families: After deployment, adaptive parenting tools. Psychological Services, 11(1), 31.
11. Cox, K., Grand-Clement, S., Galai, K., Flint, R., & Hall, A. (2018). Understanding resilience as it affects the transition from the UK Armed Forces to civilian life. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2436.html.
12. Wright, K. M., Riviere, L. A., Merrill, J. C., & Cabrera, O. A. (2013). Resilience in military families: A review of programs and empirical evidence. Building Psychological Resilience in Military Personnel: Theory and Practice, 167-191. doi: 10.1037/14190‐008