Veterans’ ‘child invisibility’ must end – let’s support their well-being instead

Many educators teach children from Australian Defense Force (ADF) families or those who left active duty and are now veterans. More than 5% of households have at least at least one person who is currently serving or has served in the past (a veteran).

Given that 13% of veterans require assistance with basic self-care activities, understanding the the potential vulnerabilities and trauma that some of these families face are important in supporting tthese children in our early childhood settings.

The interim report of the Royal Commission on Defense and Veteran Suicide gave a new platform to what military family researchers have been saying for decades; ‘The well-being family matters” (Interim Report, p. 86).

Children and partners of veterans suffer when their military family member has service-related physical and/or mental health issues.

The executive summary of the report states: ‘we have heard many stories of children and families who have been affected by the death by suicide of a loved one or by the deterioration of their state of health mental and/or physical health” (Item 12).

A 2022 study of nearly 40,000 parents of US military families reporting mental health their children’s health found that parents of current military families reported fewer mental disorders health problems in children compared to children of veterans. One of the reasons for this could be that current military families tend to have stronger social support networks that act as a protective factor for children.

Caring for traumatized family members affects family life, which also means that children development and well-being are directly affected. The executive summary explains: “Families are inexorably linked to the health and well-being of military and former military personnel ADF members, and vice versa. There is insufficient awareness and recognition of the families play a key role” (Item 12).

The prevalence of mental health disorders among ADF members was reported in a 2018 Mental Health Survey. Health and Wellness Study, finding: ‘high lifetime prevalence rates of mental disorders among former ADF members, with It is estimated that 46.4% have suffered from a mental disorder in the last 12 months. An estimated 24.9% of ex-service members met the criteria for PTSD in their life, 46.1% for anxiety and 47.5% for alcohol-related disorders’ (Interim Report, 2022, p. 128).

Figure 1: Free research-based storybook for children whose parents have service-related mental health issues (from www.ecdefenceprograms.com)

It is important for educators to know that the mental health of an ADF or veteran parent negatively impacts their children and partners via a secondary transfer of mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The report says: “military deployment, as well as mental and behavioral disorders resulting from military service, can then increase the risk that partners, spouses, children and siblings develop mental health issues….children of staff with PTSD may also experience “secondary trauma” and have similar symptoms of PTSD like their parents (page 128).

Family life can be very difficult for some children in ADF and veteran families. A 2018 An Australian study found: 16.8% of partners and 14.4% of parents were classified as high or very high levels of psychological distress…..11 percent of partners and 12.9 percent of parents of former members reported high levels of PTSD. … higher suicide rates within the family members, with a total of 13.4% spouses, 10.6% parents and 18% adult children having thought about committing suicide the previous year” (page 128).

Figure 2: Research-based storybooks provide a starting point for conversations between children and adults (from www.ecdefenceprograms.com)

A 2019 study looked at 9 published research articles and found that children of parents who are deployed demonstrated more behavioral and emotional problems than children from non-military families.

Although many children from military families demonstrate resilience and thrive in difficult situations environments, some exhibit behavioral issues in early childhood settings, including display emotional and social problems. Understanding the emotional toll of the military family challenges on children is critical. Educators need to understand the impact of service children’s behavior and the need for trauma-informed practice.

The 2018 study also found rate of emotional problems among children of current ADF members (ages 2-17 years) at levels higher than the Community averages…. 16.9 percent reported problems with peers, 16.9% reported emotional problems and 15.8% reported hyperactivity” (p. 128).

Given the high needs of children in ADF families, educators can expect a wide range of available resources that enhance their own understanding of the challenges these children face, as well as resources to support the children themselves. However, a study revealed parents and educators were frustrated and felt isolated without appropriate resources and services.

Figure 3: Research-based storybooks for children whose parents have service-related injuries or medical conditions (from www.ecdefenceprograms.com)

Our research as part of the Early Childhood Defense Program project showed that there were almost no Age and culturally appropriate resources to help them understand:

  1. deployment and training episodes when a parent has worked away
  2. frequent locations
  3. the household changes and stresses when a parent has service-related conditions.

Figure 4: Research-based storybook for children whose parents are deployed or work away for training (from www.ecdefenceprograms.com)

The executive summary of the interim report reiterated this, saying “Information on the assistance available is limited and the quantity, quality and too varied accessibility to media(Item 12).

To fill this gap, we received funding to co-create free, online, research-based resources.

This includes learning modules for educators and parents, research-based, downloadable children’s story books with educational activities and interactive children’s activities apps.

Figure 5: Free research-based modules for educators to support their efforts to help children of military and veterans families (at www.ecdefenceprograms.com)

Caring for children whose parents had service-related health and mental health issues, our Early Childhood Advocacy Program research team has worked with veterans, veteran partners, their Legacy Club Services family workers and educators to co-create some free resources for these very vulnerable children. These include interactive applications with activities to deepen children’s learning.

Story-based apps help families meet new challenges. For example, parents and veterans said it was almost impossible to organize family events because the veteran might not be able to deal with extra people, noise and situations they might find overwhelming. They also said that members need a lot of preparation time to prepare for an event or a simple discharged because they struggled to be mentally ready for simple daily interactions civilian life. It’s hard for their kids to understand, that’s why our apps support kids understanding of these daily challenges in the families of veterans.

At home, parents said they often choose between meeting the children’s needs and meet the needs of the veteran partner and they found it very stressful. veteran parents and family workers said these children needed help recognizing their parents’ emotions and practical ways to build their own resilience.

Figure 6: Research-based interactives designed to increase children’s emotional intelligence and resilience (from www.ecdefenceprograms.com)

Before families become veterans, they must leave defense. More than 5000 soldiers members transition every year, so their families face many challenges as they navigate life. Transition often means moving to another location, and many choose rural and regional areas. areas. However, traveling from regional, rural and remote areas to receive the treatment they the need imposes an additional burden on children and families.

Providing children and partners with more resources and better access to services will benefit their well-being, but also the well-being of veterans. Our resources are a start, but many more are needed to help these children and support their parents and educators.

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