Momentum is growing to learn more about the needs of military children as their parents make the transition out of uniform — and to address those needs.
And there's a lot of work to be done.
"I'm fearful we're not building out the infrastructure to follow these children when their family leaves the service" to provide continuing support, said Dr. Paula Rauch, a child psychiatrist who is director of the family program for the Red Sox Foundation/Massachusetts General Hospital.
Across the country, health care providers need to be educated about not just military service, but about child development, she said, so they can identify when military and veteran children aren't developing as they should, said Rauch, speaking during a session at the Military Child Education Coalition's 17th National Training Seminar on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Larger and longer-term studies on military children are needed, said Dr. Stephen Cozza, a retired Army colonel who is now associate director for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
"We know kids get stressed after deployment, but we don't know when and how the stress abates over time. That would be really important to know," Cozza said.
"And we have not addressed the strengths of military kids," he went on. "We have a lot of studies of military kids in terms of the difficulties they're having, but we haven't addressed more of the strengths of military kids and what they do well. We know they do a lot well. What can they teach us about health and well-being and thriving under adversity?"
Some efforts in that vein are under way within the Defense Department and elsewhere to help families in transition.
"We want to think of not just the service member's transition, but the whole family," said Barbara Thompson, director of DoD's office of family readiness policy.
Key transition points for military children include their parents' relocation, deployments, and transitions from military service to the civilian sector, Thompson said, adding that some of the accomplishments and adversities from earlier transitions can carry over.
Defense officials have been evaluating the effectiveness of family support programs. For example, they have partnered with the University of Minnesota and the Agriculture Department to increase and strengthen the capacity within communities to support of military families.
Michelle Sherman, a clinical psychologist, is among the authors of "A Veteran's Guide to Talking with Kids About PTSD," which will be available soon online to help parents.
Sherman, who worked for the Veterans Affairs Department for 18 years and is now a VA consultant, said that agency is not focused on children to an extensive degree, but some sites are doing some work in this area.
"Veteran children is a population we don't know a lot about yet," said Sherman, noting that the VA focuses on the veteran, and most VA providers are not trained in parenting or child development issues.
While there has been some progress within the VA in that area, she said, community partnerships will remain important.
"None of us have a corner on this market," she said.
Jeremy Hilton, a military spouse who attended the seminar, said the civilian community can become a "repository of knowledge" for the support military families need.
"We have to figure out better ways to rely on them ... so that they're our backup," he said. "That's why this meeting is so important, getting information to teachers who are going to train the next generation of teachers about military families and military kids."
In the next big conflict, he said, "hopefully these guys will be able to 're-spin' the civilian communities to support military families much faster than DoD will."
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.