Building Resilience in Military Families

By Iris Smith, Ph.D.

In 2022, the total number of military personnel was estimated to be 2,071,451, 63% of whom were active duty and 37% Reserve members. Active-Duty personnel include members of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Reserve components comprised of the Coast Guard, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps Reserves, the Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve. Across the Departments of Defense 50.9% are members of family units having spouses, children, or other adult dependents.1 Results from the 2021 Active-Duty Spouse Survey (ADSS) found that while average financial well-being score among active-duty spouses was 58 (slightly higher than the US. Average score of 55 in 2020), one in four active-duty spouses experienced low or very low food security and only 30% of respondents reported no financial distress.2

Military families often face unique challenges due to frequent relocation, extended absences of parents due to deployment and other stresses associated with military life. Deployment of a parent or family member is a significant stressor for children, particularly when they are deployed to locations of ongoing conflicts. The impact of deployment varies depending on the duration of the separation and the developmental age of children. Some studies have found increased anxiety and other behavioral health issues in young children whose parents have been deployed. Other studies have found an increased risk of child neglect and maltreatment.3 Family-based interventions that increase resilience and mitigate stress have been found to be effective.4

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is also more prevalent in veterans compared to the general population.  A 2021 study of 4,069 veterans found that the prevalence of lifetime and past year AUD was 40.8%.5  The study found that being younger, male, white, unmarried, and retired were independently correlated with increased lifetime prevalence of AUD. This study highlights the importance of screening veterans and recently separated military personnel for AUD. It is also important to connect children and other family members with support and resources.  Special attention also needs to be paid to families with children. There is extensive research on the emotional, psychological, and social impact of parental alcoholism and drug use which adds an additional layer of family stress.

Despite the challenges, studies have also found that being part of the military culture is also a protective factor for children. Living in proximity to other families facing many of the same challenges creates opportunities for shared experiences, social connections, and support. One study found that although school-aged children had increased psychosocial morbidity during parental wartime deployment, they had lower baseline psychosocial symptoms than their civilian peers.6 There are also numerous government sponsored resources available to military families including the Department of Defense employee sponsored childcare system, a global health care delivery system, and an education system that serves 7,200 children in 7 states, 11 countries, and 2 territories. However, roughly half of military families receive health care through civilian providers who may not be familiar with aspects of military life and culture or available resources. Providing training and resources to mental and physical health providers should be an important part of any prevention strategy for military families.


Cramm, Heidi; Godfrey, Christina M.; Murphy, Susanne; McKeown, Sandra; Dekel, Rachel. Experiences of children growing up with a parent who has military-related post-traumatic stress disorder: a qualitative systematic review. JBI Evidence Synthesis 20(7):p 1638-1740, July 2022. | DOI: 10.11124/JBIES-20-00229

Muir, C., Adams, E. A., Evans, V., Geijer-Simpson, E., Kaner, E., Phillips, S. M., Salonen, D., Smart, D., Winstone, L., & McGovern, R. (2023). A Systematic Review of Qualitative Studies Exploring Lived Experiences, Perceived Impact, and Coping Strategies of Children and Young People Whose Parents Use Substances. Trauma, violence & abuse24(5), 3629–3646.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Committee on the Well-Being of Military Families, Le Menestrel, S., & Kizer, K. W. (Eds.). (2019). Strengthening the Military Family Readiness System for a Changing American Society. National Academies Press (US).

Rossiter, A. G., & Ling, C. G. (2022). Building resilience in US military families: why it matters. BMJ military health168(1), 91–94.

Solomon, N., Gribble, R., Dighton, G., Evans, S., Taylor-Beirne, S., Chesnokov, M., & Fear, N. T. (2022). The Mental Health and Well-Being Among Partners and Children of Military Personnel and Veterans with a Combat-Related Physical Injury: A Scoping Review of the Quantitative Research. Disability and Health journal15(3), 101283.

Tetlow, S., Wallace, C., Thomas, M., Filipponi, T., Pontin, D., & Livingstone, A. (2024). A systematic review of the use of the concept family resilience in interventions with families with children and young people. Public Health Nursing (Boston, Mass.)41(2), 346–355.

[1] Department of Defense Demographics (2022) Demographics Profile.

[2] Office of People Analytics (2023) 2021 Active-Duty Spouse Survey

[3] Hubner CR, AAP Section on Uniformed Services AAP Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2019).  Health and Mental Health Needs of Children in U.S. Military Families.  Pediatrics 143(1); e20183258.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Panza Ke, Kline AC, Na PJ, Potenza MN, Norman SB, Pietrzak RH (2021) Epidemiology of DSM 5 Alcohol Use Disorder in U.S. Military Veterans:  Results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study.  Drug and Alcohol Dependence 231; pg. 19240.

[6] Aranda MC, Middleton LlS, Flake E, Davis BE (2011).k  Psychosocial Screening in Children with Wartime-Deployed parents.  Mil Med 176(4); pg. 402-407. Cited in Hubner (2019)

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