The Home Front, written by Kerry Irvin, a military spouse, certified resilience trainer, and national nonprofit director shines a spotlight on the challenges and triumphs of military family life while providing useful insight, resources, and tools to help military family members thrive. To ask a question or suggest a topic for future columns, email Kerry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Military life is challenging.
As evergreen statements go, that one has to top the list. And, those daily challenges are exponentially compounded for children of wounded, ill, or injured service members or veterans.
The White House reports there are about 2.3 million American children who take on crucial caregiving roles in their military-connected families. The added responsibilities can place incredible stress on the shoulders of these remarkable children in addition to the sacrifices they already make as part of their military lifestyle, including frequent family moves and parental deployments.
The specific impacts of caregiver duties will vary by child, but there is a potential for adverse effects on their mental and physical wellbeing. I was fortunate to participate in a recent discussion with other military family advocates during the 2021 Warrior Community Integration Symposium that challenged the status quo regarding caregiving and discussed its associated impacts. An overarching takeaway from the conversation was that military children often slide into these caregiver roles without parents realizing that it is happening. One tool professionals recommend parents utilize to help them determine if their child is a caregiver is the Activities of Daily Living survey, which highlights key caregiving duties.
Taking on the role of a caregiver often diminishes the opportunities for these children to find respite, interact with peers, focus on schoolwork, or pursue extracurricular activities such as clubs, sports, or part-time jobs. As the young caregivers themselves put it, they sometimes wish for the chance to “just be like other kids.” Their unique challenges and sense of otherness can lead to increased feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety.
Thankfully, there is hope on the horizon as individuals and groups inside and outside the veteran-serving profession are taking notice of caregiver children and the lack of support services tailored to their exceptional experiences. The White House recently recognized these unsung heroes in its “Strengthening America’s Military Families” report, which acknowledged the need to bolster support for the children of America’s heroes.
Building upon the findings of that report, the administration’s Joining Forces initiative teamed up with Senator Elizabeth Dole, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, and representatives of nearly 60 nonprofit organizations to launch the Hidden Helpers Coalition, an alliance of veteran and military serving organizations and agencies led by teams from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Wounded Warrior Project.
At an event hosted by the White House on Nov. 10, the groups detailed their commitments to military child caregivers. Key among those are ongoing efforts to understand the unmet needs and impacts that caregiving has on the lives of military children, while also developing creative solutions to better serve this often-overlooked population of youth directly.
Areas of focus for the effort include enhancing peer-support activities, providing access to mental and emotional support services, offering workshops to help parents better support their caregiving children, and hosting training opportunities for educators, healthcare workers, and other non-parent adults who interact with caregiving children.
As these groups work toward delivering assistance directly to military caregiving children, it is essential to note that vital support can also come from other adults in these kids’ lives. Coaches, teachers, guidance counselors, neighbors, and others with whom they interact can help military children bond with their peers, foster a sense of belonging, and provide a safe space for conversation and connection that may be missing in their lives.
Statistics indicate that military children often follow in the footsteps of their parents, siblings, or other family members by joining a branch of the Armed Services when they come of age. As we endeavor to enhance their available support, we also empower them to become our next generation of military heroes.
Kerry Irvin is an active-duty military spouse and DoD-certified resilience trainer, her efforts to create communities in which military families can thrive have been recognized with the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Secretary of the Army’s Superior Public Service Medal.