Military children are the “Children of the world, blown to all corners of the world. [They] bloom anywhere.” Just like dandelions, military children never know where they will go and where they will grow.
Diane Townsend Davis is credited with creating the dandelion motto for military children. Understanding this motto is imperative for any counselor who wishes to work with military children, but especially for school counselors. The Department of Defense Dependents Education (DoDDE) estimates that 80% of military children (approximately 1.2 million) attend public schools.
Counselors who work with military children must understand the unique stressors that these children face, but counselors also must be prepared to help meet these children’s needs in a short amount of time because their families move often. To avoid having these children slip through the cracks, school counselors must be knowledgeable about rapport-building strategies with this population and meet their needs in a realistic time frame.
Working with clients from their worldview is not a new concept for counselors. This is particularly important when working with a population connected to the military because these clients’ perspectives differ drastically from those of the civilian population. Being knowledgeable about the unique needs of the military culture is a necessity for effective counseling work. For instance, often as military children begin to find their niche in a school, their families will receive orders for relocation. Military families relocate 2.4 times more often than do civilian families (on average, military families relocate every two to three years).
Reality therapy offers this population an honest evaluation of their current choices and behaviors to determine if change is needed to obtain their desired outcomes. This modality offers something that is very important to consider for this population —an emphasis on what aspects of life the client has control over.
As noted, military children move often and therefore tend to be the new kid in school quite frequently. But these children are not like most other new children in school. These children:
- Have parents who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the well-being of the nation and to safeguard its people
- Have parents who often leave for extended periods of time to either train for combat-related situations or as part of combat-related missions
- Know that a great deal of risk is associated with their parents’ jobs
- Don’t always know whether their mom or dad made it back safely from work
- Can go for months without being able to see their parent(s)
In an age of social media, these children may at times be able to connect with their parents, but they also might see or hear reports of attacks on the news. When a member of a military unit is killed in action, all communication is cut off at their deployment station to ensure that the family of the service member is notified prior to receiving any other communication. When military children are unable to connect with their parent, the fear of the death being their father or mother is very real. All of the above noted aspects are the reality for military children, and all of these aspects are out of their realm of control.
Reality therapy offers these clients the opportunity to form a relationship with their counselor based on understanding and nonjudgment. Clients have a voice when working with counselors who use reality therapy. The clients become empowered by being afforded the idea of having control over their behaviors and actions.
A basic tenant of reality therapy is aiding clients in having their basic needs met. Creating a safe place in which clients do not feel judged but do feel empowered is therapeutic in itself.
Reality therapy is founded on the idea that everyone is seeking to fulfill five basic needs:
1) Love and belonging
2) Power or sense of worth
3) Freedom or independence
4) Fun or a sense of pleasure
5) Survival (which is based on knowing that one’s basic needs are being met)
When one of these needs is not being met, mental health issues can arise.
For clients connected to the military, feeling loved and belonging might look different than it does for other clients. Because these clients are frequently separated from loved ones and move often, meeting their need to feel loved and belong can be challenging. Reality therapy provides these clients with the understanding that they cannot change or control others. So, the practical approach will be to solve problems through their ability to control themselves and their own behaviors and thus make choices that support their needs and desired goals.
Within the military, very little power is offered to the family or the service member. Ultimately, the family and service member follow orders from a multitude of levels within the Department of Defense (DOD). Yet each military-connected member can feel a sense of accomplishment through actions they choose to control. For instance, helping clients make a list of goals that they want to accomplish while living somewhere (i.e., making the best out of each duty station) can be empowering to them.
Gaining knowledge of a new area through exploration can also be empowering. Helping clients identify their interests (and what makes them unique) can further support their independence and wellness. Fun can also be part of that experience.
Of course, with each transition that military-connected clients face, their survival needs will be tested. For instance, they may need to realign their thoughts regarding shelter (housing). Yet helping these clients differentiate what is out of their control and what is in their control can aide them in pursuing actions that support the desired outcomes that are within their control. Clients may still be angry, confused or saddened by aspects that are outside of their control. But counselors can help clients see that rather than blaming others or relying on these aspects as an excuse, they can focus on and take ownership of their present time and actions.
Reality therapy sessions are structured around the WDEP system — the client’s wants, doing, evaluation and planning. The counselor meets the client in the here and now and explores what the client wants. This realistic exploration of attainment notes what is in the client’s control and what is not. Clients then share what they are doing to help themselves achieve their wants. Next, the counselor helps clients evaluate whether what they are doing is supportive of or detrimental to their goals. Then, together, the counselor and client plan ways to change detrimental behaviors and fine-tune supportive behaviors to allow for the client to obtain his or her wants.
As the client is faced with new areas of need, the same WDEP system can be applied. Military-connected clients are faced with many hardships fostered by their culture. But reality therapy offers this population a real chance to be resilient by adapting to change and overcoming challenges.
Military child resiliency largely resembles how well the stay-behind parent is doing. If the parent is unable to cope or transition with the needs of the family when the service member is not available to assist them, then a domino effect will occur. Children will have to fulfill adult responsibilities in the absence of the service member. The parental stressors will then be placed on the children’s shoulders.
For some parents, missing a spouse may be too much for them to handle. Other parents who are left behind may not be married or may not currently be together with the service member, but they may still rely on the service member for support with the children.
When there is a lack of available support, the additional stressors put these families at risk. A 2008 report from the Military Family Research Institute found studies to support that since 9/11, when the number of deployments for service members increased, military families experienced increased rates of marital conflict, domestic violence, child neglect or maltreatment, parenting stress, anxiety and depression.
On the opposite side, when the parent left behind is able to successfully juggle the transition and continue meeting both personal and family needs, children experience less turmoil. These children are better able to continue on as normal with minimal changes to other aspects of life. However, having resources available to these parents to support them in filling roles for which the service member parent was typically responsible is imperative.
Civilian school counselors and community mental health counselors should consider that the resources that military families rely on may not be readily available. For instance, counselors should note whether additional family support is local versus distant and how long the family has called its current community home. Again, reality therapy can provide these clients with a realistic perspective of addressing their needs. Therefore, it is important for counselors to know what additional supports are available to these families.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, children across the United States spend an average of 6.64 hours a day and a 180 days per year attending public schools. As noted previously, 80% of military children attend public schools.
Public schools have a duty to be aware of the needs of military children. In its 2012 national model, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) asserts the necessity for school counselors to understand their students’ culture in order to provide effective support for students’ academic, career and personal/social development. ASCA further proclaims in its 2012 executive summary that school counseling programs can be effective only when a collaborative effort exists between the school counselor, parents and other educators, thus creating an environment that promotes student achievement.
School counselors who use reality therapy can support students’ academic, career and personal/social development. For each of these areas of development, the school counselor can address the student client’s wants and doing while also aiding the student in evaluating such efforts and making plans that support success. Yet without understanding the unique needs of the military lifestyle, school counselors will be unable to support these children in the schools or locate appropriate community resources to provide support outside of school. Therefore, when assessing the student client’s wants, a realistic perspective of the stakeholders involved will aid in developing goals that the student client has control over.
The same notion of understanding the unique needs of military children and military families is true for civilian community counselors. According to the ACA Code of Ethics, the primary responsibility of a counselor is to respect the dignity and promote the welfare of clients (Standard A.1.a.). This notion alone requires counselors to take the specific needs of their clients into consideration.
To best do this, counselors should not impose their own values on clients (A.4.b.) but instead should honor the diversity of clients and their uniqueness within their social and cultural contexts. Reality therapy promotes this understanding by developing a therapeutic relationship that embraces the client’s worldview and operates from that perspective in developing realistic goals.
As military children, family members and service members are blown to all corners of the world, professional counselors should be asking themselves a question: “How can we best serve these clients so that they can bloom?”
All counselors should have the same mission when working with this population — namely, devising goals that are realistic and attainable for these clients. Counselors must make themselves knowledgeable of the specific resources that are available to this population to promote therapeutic growth rather than presenting yet another barrier that these clients must face. There are many resources available exclusively to service members, veterans and their families of which civilian counselors may not be aware. When working with military families, it is imperative that counselors do their homework regarding these resources before leading clients blindly with an analysis of client control in establishing wants or goals.
Toward the end of this article, I will share a number of resources that are available to assist military families living off base. But let’s next consider what civilian counselors can do.
For starters, civilian counselors will want to build rapport with the military-connected client while being mindful of their cultural worldview (just as they would with any other client). This will require the counselor to be knowledgeable about the military population and the client’s role within the military family. As noted earlier, this is a unique culture, and being able to understand this lens of perception will be helpful when clients are processing and trying to navigate scenarios for realistic solutions or coming to terms with aspects that may be troublesome (again, following the tenets of reality therapy).
Second, whether working with the service member, the child or the stay-behind parent, consider infusing into the treatment plan the power of resiliency. Due to their lifestyle, military-connected clients are typically used to a great deal of adjustment in various aspects of their lives on a regular basis. Helping clients build off of their past successes to navigate new challenges can be empowering. Reality therapy supports counselors in evaluating with clients what is working and what is not.
In 2008, the Military Family Research Institute found that the following stressors were considered normative for military children but not for civilian children:
1) Regular, and at times lengthy, separations from parents
2) Lengthy parental work hours
3) Permanent changes of station
4) Deployments for multiple and various purposes
5) Exposure to combat-related activities and equipment, including training
Just because the stressors are considered normal for the population, the events and circumstances experienced are not to be inferred as easy for military children to manage. Just like with any stressor for any client, the more sudden, serious, ambiguous or traumatic the loss, the more difficult the stress will be to manage. Many of these same stressors are applicable both to the parent who is left behind and to the service member.
It is common for military couples to experience marital distress due to a multitude of these stressors. Commonly seen mental health issues in the military population for the service member and veteran include mood disorders, trauma/posttraumatic stress disorder, sexual assault, suicide, addiction, adjustment issues and relationship concerns. Commonly seen mental health issues among military spouses and children include mood disorders, trauma, adjustment issues and relationship concerns.
To explore an issue that may plague any member of a military family, we will focus on working with a military-connected client who is experiencing relationship issues. Guiding these clients in exploring how to communicate with their families despite the physical distance between them and how to involve family members in their life even from afar can help with feelings of detachment. Reality therapy offers clients the ability to come to terms with aspects of their lives that are in their control as well as outside of their control.
Finding ways to help clients embrace the family dynamic even when changes occur can help sustain the idea of their family system. Highlighting previous resiliency efforts to help clients explore this new change, come to accept it, and adapt how they now fit into their family system can reinforce the idea of maintaining relationships. WDEP analysis for each consideration posed by clients offers not only a realistic evaluation of their current circumstance, but also celebrates their small victories and offers opportunities to modify aspects that are not supporting their desired wants.
Navigating the change within the family while assessing client strengths and processing their feelings regarding the change (as well as the realistic desires of the client, while still being mindful of the military lifestyle) can aid the client in managing more healthy relationships. This can be extended to other relationships outside of the family as well.
The idea of resiliency and understanding military culture is at the core of helping these clients. Reality therapy offers counselors the ability to seamlessly integrate into each session regardless of how much time they ultimately have with these clients.
Resources for all
To provide additional effective supports when working with children and families connected to the military, it is necessary to know where to turn. These additional supports are very important because these clients move frequently and are often far from family and friends who might normally offer assistance. And counselors cannot do it all by themselves.
The resources mentioned below are only a few of the many available to military families. However, they are a great place to start, whether you counsel military-connected children and their families in the school setting or in the community.
American Red Cross: Offers support with emergency communications with service member while deployed, financial assistance, information and referral services, deployment services, and Reunification Workshops.
Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP): Program is intended to support service member dependents who have ongoing medical, mental health or special education needs (on both spectrums — gifted as well as challenges). To enroll, service members should complete and submit 1) DD Form 2792, the Family Member Medical Summary or 2) DD Form 2792-1, the Family Member Special Education/Early Intervention Summary to their installation EFMP office.
MIC3 (mic3.net/): This is the official website of the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission. The goal of the interstate compact is to replace the widely varying policies affecting transitioning military students with a consistent policy in every school district and in every state that chooses to join.
Military Child Education Coalition: The coalitions three goals are the following:
1) Military-connected children’s academic, social and emotional needs are recognized, supported and appropriate responses provided.
2) Parents, and other supporting adults, are empowered with the knowledge to ensure military-connected children are college, workforce and life ready.
3) A strong community of partners is committed to support an environment where military-connected children thrive.
Military family life counselors: Intention is to support service members, their families and survivors with nonmedical counseling worldwide. Counselors provide face-to-face counseling services, briefings and presentations to the military community both on and off the installation.
Military and Government Counseling Association (MGCA): MGCA is a division of the American Counseling Association with the mission of servicing those who serve. Its website says, “The purpose of MGCA is to encourage and deliver meaningful guidance, counseling, and educational programs to all members of the Armed Services, their family members, and civilian employees of Local, State and Federal Governmental Agencies. … Develop and promote the highest standards of professional conduct among counselors and educators working with Armed Services personnel and veterans. Establish, promote, and maintain improved communication with the nonmilitary community; and conduct and foster programs to enhance individual human development and increase recognition of humanistic values and goals within State and Federal Agencies.” MGCA publishes the peer-reviewed Journal of Military and Government Counseling. The journal publishes articles on all aspects of practice, theory, research and professionalism related to counseling and education in military and government settings.
Military Kids Connect: Military Kids Connect is an online community for military children (ages 6-17) that provides access to age-appropriate resources to support children dealing with the unique psychological challenges of military life.
Military OneSource: Military OneSource offers a range of individualized consultations, coaching and counseling services for many aspects of military life. Services include confidential nonmedical counseling, spouse education and career opportunities, document translation, financial and tax consultation, special needs, spouse relocation and transition, and education.
U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity school liaison officers: The purpose of this position is to serve as the primary point of contact for school-related matters; represent, inform and assist commands; assist military families with school issues (to include providing parents with the tools they need to overcome obstacles to education that stem from the military lifestyle); coordinate with local school systems; and forge partnerships between the military and schools.
Many of the resources available to military service members and their dependents (spouse and children) are free of charge. Noting this may be the difference in whether military families seek these resources out.
I hope this article has provided some insights regarding the needs of military children and their families. In order to provide effective school and community resources for this population, it is important to be aware that these children are not located only on military installations; they are also on public school campuses and in civilian communities. To safeguard the well-being of these children and their families, it is also imperative to understand the uniqueness of military culture.
Currently, there is a gap in services for military families living in the civilian realm. The purpose of this article is to build confidence among civilian school counselors and community counselors by suggesting realistic resources that will help them to better support this population. You never know if a dandelion will blow into your community and need assistance to bloom.
Nicole M. Arcuri Sanders is a licensed professional counselor and core faculty at Capella University within the School of Counseling and Human Services. Clinically, she engages in practice with the military-connected population. Within this specific area of focus, she has also completed research, published, and presented at local, regional and national conferences to advocate for effective clinical services to meet this population’s needs. She has previously worked as a DoDEA district military liaison counselor, substance awareness counselor, school counselor, psychiatric assessment counselor, anti-bullying specialist and teacher. Contact her at Nicole.ArcuriSanders@capella.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.