This article appeared on the Northcentral University blog on May 30, 2017.
Military families who are exposed to stressors caused by repeated deployments, injuries, and even death may find the need for military family therapy. According to a 2015 study cited in Contemporary Family Therapy, roughly 2.7 million families have experienced significant periods of separation from their military family member since 2001. While children are resilient, and spouses of military members prepare themselves for separations, there can remain significant problems. In fact, studies show that more than half the spouses of deployed members report problems that range from worry and loneliness to anxiety, while nearly 40 percent have issues with sleep and controlling anger. Other issues cited in the study include depression and stress.
Children have a unique set of needs as well. The U.S. Department of Education reports (Link downloads PDF) that the 1.2 million school-age children of the military, as of 2014, lead a somewhat nomadic life, which can create added stress. As the Contemporary Family Therapy article outlines, when dealing with military family therapy, counselors need to remember that, “Although today’s service members are willing volunteers, their loved ones, especially their children, are effectively draftees; rather than enlisting of their own volition, they are conscripted into military service.”
Despite these pressures, overcoming stress can be critical to the military member’s survival. This is where the role of the therapist becomes important and military family therapy can be vital in helping both the family and the service member thrive. Therapists who work with military families should examine all stages of deployment, including a spouse’s need to take care of themselves and their children during their spouse’s deployment; supporting a military member who might suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other combat-related illnesses; helping family members manage stress; and counseling the family on how to adapt to lifestyle changes before, during and after deployments.
Advice for Therapists Treating Military Families
One of the biggest challenges facing therapists involved with military family therapy is building trust with the military community. As therapist Keith Myers says in Counseling Today, “Trust is the foundation for all meaningful personal and professional relationships.” Yet it can be challenging to establish with the military population because, as a civilian, the therapist is not part of the inner circle. Therefore, it is important for therapists to develop a deep understanding of this specialized segment of the American population.