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Journal Issue: Military Children and Families Volume 23 Number 2 Fall 2013

Afterword: What We Can Learn from Military Children and Families
Ann S. Masten


The wellbeing of military children and families in the United States has far-reaching significance for the nation as a whole, in addition to its importance for military capabilities and individual service members and their families. The articles in this issue underscore this message as they update what we know and what we need to know about the challenges and opportunities of military life for children and their families. Although military life has unique hazards and benefits, there are also many parallels in the lives of military and civilian families. Thus, the struggles and achievements of military families and the systems that support them hold valuable lessons for all of us. Based on this issue of the Future of Children, this commentary highlights lessons we can learn from military children and families that have the potential to help many families outside the military. It also suggests ways to build on those lessons through additional research and dissemination.

The articles in this issue are grounded in two sets of ideas: contemporary developmental systems theory and a resilience framework.1 Central to developmental systems theory is the idea that a person's adaptation and development over the life course is shaped by interactions among many systems, from the level of genes or neurons to the level of family, peers, school, community, and the larger society. Similarly, a family is shaped over time by many interactions among its members and other systems outside the family. This issue makes clear that the U.S. military has recognized the interdependence among systems as its leaders strive to shape and retain a highly effective all-volunteer force. Across the service branches, the military has acted to improve the systems that support service members and their families. These efforts reflect the military's implicit or explicit belief that children's wellbeing influences the successful functioning of their service member parents, and that the military's collective effectiveness depends, now and in the future, on the success of the children and families who serve along with their parents, spouses, and partners.

A resilience framework has compelling advantages for understanding and promoting success in military families and organizations. Such a framework accords well with the goals of military systems, service members, and their families, all of whom, in varying ways, share an interest in successful adaptation, resilience, and recovery in the context of challenging and traumatic experiences. When people face potentially life-ending or life-altering hazards, a resilience framework emphasizes positive objectives; building the capacity to respond effectively; the potential for recovery; and the power of relationships, families, communities, and other external resources to boost resilience, in addition to individual strengths and skills.2 As a result, resilience-based approaches convey respect for human capabilities and optimism about the future, while they simultaneously recognize the suffering and devastation that can arise in situations of extreme adversity, including war.

Resilience refers generally to the successful adaptation of a system in response to significant challenges. This concept can be applied to any living organism, as well as a family, a community, a workplace, the military as a whole, a computer system, a country, or a global ecosystem. "Successful adaptation," of course, will be defined in different ways, depending on the values, goals, culture, and historical or scientific context of the people making judgments about success. For individual children, both developmental and cultural context play a role in defining good adaptation. Developmental scientists often define resilience with respect to expected achievements for children of different ages or stages of development, sometimes called developmental tasks.3 Some of these expectations are universal, such as learning to walk or talk. Others are more specific to a culture or situation, such as learning to hunt or to read sacred scriptures in the original language. Families are often judged by how well they promote the health, development, and goals of their members within their culture or society.4 Resilience frameworks emerged from five decades of research on resilience in human development, supplemented in recent years by efforts to work across disciplinary boundaries.5

Resilience frameworks typically encompass, delineate, and measure the following elements: positive objectives; positive factors or assets as well as challenges or risks; positive outcomes in addition to problems; protective influences as well as vulnerabilities; and strategies of intervention that reduce or mitigate risk, build assets and resources, and mobilize protective processes to promote resilience and recovery.

Research on disasters, wars, and terrorist attacks has underscored how systems are interdependent when they respond to life-threatening events.6 Adaptive capacity for resilience is distributed across systems. For example, a community's resilience depends on the resilience of its constituent members as well as the capacities of larger emergency response systems. A family's resilience depends on the resilience of individuals within and outside the family as well as support systems in the community and beyond. Children's resilience depends on the adaptive functioning of their own internal systems as well as interactions among many other systems in their lives. Disasters often bring a catastrophic breakdown of many interacting systems at many levels of scale, and the interdependence of systems that support everyday function and emergency response become evident. Failures at one level can cascade to affect other levels. Similarly, the capabilities and resilience of military service members, units, and organizations as a whole depend on the adaptation of many other interconnected systems, including service members' families.

Resilience researchers have studied how children and families respond to many kinds of adversity, including mass trauma (for example, war, terrorism, or natural disaster), situations arising within a family (for example, child maltreatment or domestic violence) or a neighborhood (for example, poverty or high levels of violence).7 Their work has yielded extensive evidence that can guide efforts to promote resilience. At the same time, we need to keep building a solid knowledge base about what works in specific situations for specific individuals, families, or systems, and when. The reviews in this issue make clear that programs developed within the military have benefited from resilience concepts and studies. It also is clear that research on those programs has already contributed to the knowledge base on risk, resilience, and recovery and that it could contribute even more substantially. In many respects, the military's goals, resources, and organizational systems offer a unique opportunity to enhance resilience science and its applications for the common good.

The first section of this commentary focuses on the challenges of military family life and lessons from efforts to address those risks. The second section highlights the opportunities of military life for children and families. The conclusion summarizes the potential of research on both naturally occurring resilience and interventions that promote resilience in military families to inform theory, practices, and policies on the development and promotion of success and resilience in all families and their children, as well as military systems.