Children in military families often face challenges: switching schools, moving to new places, missing a parent who is deployed. But for children of service members who have been injured in combat, the challenges can multiply quickly.
A new report, published in April, examines the effect of military caregiving on children, a topic that has been largely overlooked in research. The report finds these children are at greater risk of mental and physical health challenges, social isolation and financial strain.
The Children of Military Caregivers Impact Forum Report lays out a plan for advancing support for these families. Published through a partnership of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the National Military Family Association, and the Wounded Warrior Project, the report stemmed from a forum last July that convened more than 30 leaders in the military and veteran arena.
“Like their caregiver moms and dads, these hidden helpers are proud to be a part of their family, but the load they carry is heavier than any our nation should let them bear.” — former Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
“Like their caregiver moms and dads, these hidden helpers are proud to be a part of their family, but the load they carry is heavier than any our nation should let them bear,” former Sen. Elizabeth Dole said at the forum.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 5.5 million military caregivers, according to research conducted by the RAND Corporation and published in 2014. Nearly 20 percent of those are caring for post-9/11 veterans. Many of these caregivers are spouses with young children at home.
“It’s clearly taking a toll on them,” said Liz Rotenberry, who was among panelists at the forum; she is a caregiver for her husband, Chuck, and their four children. Rotenberry also works for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation as an advocate for caregivers in her role as Fellows Program Coordinator.
Injuries affect the whole family
Physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms that result from the stress of military caregiving have a direct impact on quality of life for children, said the report.
“You can’t live in a household with somebody suffering and not have it affect everybody in the household,” Rotenberry said at the forum.
Rotenberry said her husband was “a totally different person” after suffering a traumatic brain injury in 2011 while serving in the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. “It became a struggle” to manage care for both him and their children, she said.
Rotenberry and the other caregivers at the forum raised concerns about the relentless tasks and responsibilities associated with balancing caregiving and parenting. They said their caregiving duties sometimes make it difficult to prioritize their children’s needs.
A challenge common to many caregivers is social isolation. A VA Caregiver Program study cited in the report found that 75 percent of caregiver respondents engaged in the community three times or less in the past month.
You have to make conscious choices for children and for yourself as a caregiver, said Hannah, another forum participant, and “not let your entire life be limited by the person you’re caring for. It can be a very unhealthy dynamic sometimes.”
Caregivers also spoke about the military-civilian divide, or a lack of understanding by the general population about the challenges military families encounter. This can contribute to isolation of military families due to a lack of support from their communities, schools, medical providers, and others.
But caregiving results in positive outcomes as well, according to the report. In fact, children may become stronger and more compassionate because of their exposure to caregiving.
Young caregivers show resilience
“Sometimes kids suffer in silence,” Rotenberry said, “but they are resilient.”
Rotenberry recalled a day when, in her absence, Chuck wasn’t feeling well and was unable to get the children to school. He had a headache as a result of his injuries and had overslept. When Rotenberry spoke to her children on the phone, she found they waited for their father to wake up, made sure he had something to eat, and reminded him to take his medication.
“It’s amazing how their instincts just kick in,” she said.
Jacqueline, another forum participant, said her children have become more compassionate.
“They care so much about other people because they’ve seen suffering,” she said in the report. “They’ve lived through trauma; they understand what pain is.”
Overall the report calls for more research, policies and programs to meet the needs of children, whose lives have been marked by caring for someone who has been injured in combat.
This means not just minimizing the impact on children of military caregivers while they are young, but also lessening the effect on their future development.
Recommendations include providing affordable mental health care, conducting outreach in schools, and partnering with other organizations such as the YMCA and The Independence Fund to ensure children and caregivers receive adequate support. The report also calls for more detailed research to look at the impacts of military caregiving on school performance, or other markers, and on the effectiveness of different interventions over time.
“Supporting children of military caregivers is an endeavor that will span decades,” the report says.
Lindsey Wray is a freelance writer and editor in Arlington, Va. She has written for Army Times and the Military Officers Association of America.