Supporting military families
The NSPCC has delivered preventative services at two army garrisons for nearly 20 years, providing drop-in services, perinatal groups, school lunch clubs and targeted services for children and families who need more specific support. A recent survey has enabled the NSPCC to compare the experiences of new and existing service users and to follow up parents who recently started attending.
‘Our armed forces are likely to be busier during the next ten years than the previous.’
Reflecting on the current international political climate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence was giving the opening address at the annual conference organised by the Kings Centre for Military Health Research. It was a sobering thought; and will be a major concern for the families of serving personnel. Several presentations during the day discussed how trauma experienced during combat can have a long-term impact on wellbeing and relationships.
I have interest in this issue having recently completed an evaluation of early help services to military families. The NSPCC has delivered preventative services at two army garrisons for nearly 20 years, providing drop-in services, perinatal groups, school lunch clubs and targeted services for children and families who need more specific support. For the evaluation, we interviewed staff, stakeholders and groups of parents and children from military-connected families. We also surveyed 137 parents who attend drop-in services for parents and pre-school children at the military sites.
We encountered two recurring questions during the evaluation. First, why does a children’s charity have sites within an army garrison? Second, are military-connected children more at risk of abuse than civilian children?
Children within army garrisons
Perhaps surprising to those unfamiliar with army garrisons, there are many children who live ‘behind the wire’. An estimated 79% of service families have children, with over half having at least one child of school age (Ministry of Defence, 2017). There are several benefits to being a member of a service family, including having a stable income, a sense of identity and pride, close-knit social networks and support from military organisations. Some parents we spoke to talked about the how the increased security within a garrison allows the children living there to have greater freedom to roam their environment in way many of their peers living in urban or suburban areas do not experience.
Risks to military children
However, even during peacetime, recurring features of military life, such as separations due to deployment and training, stressors associated with the deployment cycle, and frequent relocation, create circumstances that potentially undermine parent and child wellbeing. Parents reported higher levels of anxiety than the general population and described how they sometimes feel isolated, particularly if their partner is serving away or if they had to move far from their friends and family.
Interviewees also talked about cultural pressures to conform and not ask for help, as admitting to not coping is considered to reflect badly. Risk factors can worsen when a serving parent is deployed within a combat role – as their absence and the increased anxiety will affect each member of the family in different ways. While child abuse and neglect within military-connected populations is not higher than the civilian population, research suggests that abuse appears to increase during the deployment cycle (Alfano et al, 2016). Knowing this, we can prevent risks to children; if military families are given support that is sensitive to their circumstances.
Building families’ strengths
There is promising evidence from the US that preventative interventions for military families with young children can promote resilience, help parents overcome stress anxiety and depression and encourage child centred and sensitive parenting (Nolan and Misca, 2018). We hope that our evaluation can contribute to learning about how we can develop services that can build protective factors within military families in the UK. Aspects of the services considered particularly effective in building family strengths were:
- Not stigmatising – offering support to all families, not just those referred because they need help.
- Offering a universal service to both military-connected and civilian families – enabling parents to get support from peers in the same situation and parents unconnected with army culture whose presence dilutes potential reluctance to mingle across regiment and rank.
- Workers able to gain parents trust – being welcoming and non-judgemental encouraged parents with problems to seek help and advice.
- Providing opportunities for parents to learn and be supported by workers and peers – while workers can model child focused behaviour, meeting new friends and acquaintances provides opportunities to watch, talk and learn from other parents.
Our survey enabled us to compare the experiences of new and existing service users and to follow up parents who recently started attending. Alongside reductions in anxiety, we found that parents who had regularly attended reported increased support, social connections and confidence in their parenting abilities.
For more information about the needs of military families and how to support them, download the full report.
About the author
Nicola McConnell is a Senior Evaluation Officer within the NSPCC’s Evidence Team. She is the lead author of the new report Early Help for Military Connected Families.
Alfano C A, Lau S, Balderas J, Bunnell B E & Beidel D C (2016) The impact of military deployment on children: Placing developmental risk in context. Clinical Psychology Review, 43 pp.17–29.
McConnell N, Thomas E, Bosher A, Cotmore R (2019) Early support for military-connected families: evaluation of services at NSPCC military sites. London: NSPCC.
Ministry of Defence (2017) UK Tri-Service Families Continuous Attitude Survey Results 2017, United Kingdom.
Nolan M & Misca G (2018) A review of coping strategies, parenting programmes and psychological therapies available to military parents with children under 5, International Journal of Birth and Parenting Education, Vol. 5, Issue 4.