Program Offers Help for At-Risk Kids of Military Families

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New York — A decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken its toll on children whose parents are deployed, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health.

The study, of more than 10,000, 8th, 10th and 12th-grade students, found that boys especially have been affected by the stress of a parent’s deployment. Researchers wrote that they are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior, experience low self esteem and suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts. The study was conducted in Washington state, home to 60,000 active-duty service members.

“It’s really time to focus on the children that are left behind,” said Sarah Reed, the lead author of the report, “Adolescent well-being in Washington state military families,” published last week in the American Journal of Public Health.

The good news, according to Barbara Thompson, director of the Office of Family Policy, Children & Youth in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, is that the military is addressing the needs of these adolescents in a myriad of ways.

In a presentation made at the annual conference of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges,  Ms. Thompson focused on what the Department of Defense does for children, youth and families in crisis.

She pointed out that a new and novel approach available to military adults and their teenage children is through the Military Family Life Consultants (MFLC) Program.  This program provides non-medical “life coaches” who contract with the department to guide and assist troubled teens and adults through difficult situations. These “life coaches” are masters- and PhD- level mental-health professionals who are licensed to practice independently but who, as “life coaches,” do not provide counseling or therapy. They instead gather resources, make referrals and assist in problem solving on a short-term basis.

Families may meet together with the coach, or teens 14 and older may see the coach alone. All sessions are private and confidential, at no cost to the family, and the department allows 12 sessions with the coach for each issue the youth or family want to discuss.

“Re-entry is as difficult as leaving for the military family,” she said, “and we do it cycle after cycle, year after year. We are hearing of very challenging behaviors from children as a result.”

The youth may become used to a parent being deployed, to a different style of discipline at home, and may push back from the parent who returns. Likewise, the returning parent’s expectations may not be met. The life coach can assist both, and is trained to identify resources and referrals. The coach can provide easy access to a continuum of counseling support, including prevention, early intervention and treatment to enhance coping and building resilience.

Life coaches also help with everyday situations such as, stress, anger management, teen problems, school and relationship issues, single parenting, loneliness and financial difficulties. They can also help families get through the grief of losing a loved one.

For kids, the coaching might include recommending a Boys and Girls Club, 4-H Club, base recreation or any of the other partnerships the Department of Defense has with outside agencies. The coaching services under the MFLC program are available for National Guard and Reserve members and families as well as active duty military in all branches of service.

For deployment support, Ms. Thompson said, “the goal is to keep the parent in the mind of the child and the child in the mid of the parent.”

If the military family or teenager has difficulty locating a life coach within the MFLC program, Ms. Thompson suggested contacting Military OneSource (MOS),  or the Joint Family Support Assistance Program (JFSAP). Every state has a program director, she said.


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