Children and military life
Te ao hōia me ngā tamariki
Helping ngā tamariki to be resilient.
NZDF recognises the commitment that military families/whānau make for their loved one to be in uniform. In turn, NZDF promotes healthy military families/whānau through connection to defence communities, community events, programmes support services and personnel.
The NZDF wants to support healthy and thriving children in our military families/whānau. One thing that is a certainty is that military families/whānau and children need to prepare for their uniformed parent to be away from home at some point. This information is provided to help support military children.
Strengths and growth post-deployment
Children will have many different positive experiences and opportunities through being part of a military family. These include being part of the wider military community, joining with other military children at events, holiday programmes and deployment activities, belonging to the wider military whānau, and new experiences when moving homes because of postings.
While most experiences will be positive there are times when children will miss having their uniformed parent/s around because of operations or other duties. They may also miss being closely connected with their usual whānau, friends, sports clubs or school communities because of posting moves. Sometimes their non-military friends and community may not understand what their family lifestyle is like.
There are opportunities for positive development through being in a military family/whānau. Here are some of the ways this happens:
- The experience fosters maturity
- Emotional growth and insight
- Encouraging independence
- Encouraging flexibility and adapting to change
- Building skills for adjusting to separations and losses faced later in life
- Strengthening family bonds
- Awareness and understanding of the importance of civic duty
Growing up a military child
The pros and cons!
(Disclaimer: This video is based within the United States and therefore some topics discussed will not be applicable to New Zealand military personnel or their families).
Supporting our families and children to thrive
Providing support for families and military children to thrive in turn supports our military population to be able to focus on their role when at work.
Members will be required to post to new locations away from family/whānau and community support, be available for deployments, operations and exercises, which requires time away from home. In recognition of these demands on uniformed members, the NZDF facilitates support for families and children. This support includes:
- NZDF Social Work service
- Defence Community support and Defence Community Facilitators
- Military Chaplains
- 24/7 helpline (0800 NZDF4U- Wellbeing Support line)
- Welcome books and Induction to local camps and bases
- Family friendly community events and activities
- Child activities during school holidays
- Before and after school care
- Deployment support
- Newsletters and social media sites
- Force 4 Families discounts scheme and information portal
- Member funded respite homes and hire pool
- Access to leisure facilities
What are some key child wellbeing factors to know about?
There are some key child development models that are helpful to know about in relation to military lifestyle.
Attachment theory and absence from home
How your children relate to their parents/guardians/caregivers is the foundation for their wellbeing and development now and long term. The type of relationship they have with a caregiver prepares them to create healthy relationships with others as they go through life. This includes the way that they relate to their school environment, interact with their friends, explore their environment, learn, cope with knocks or disappointments, and manage close personal relationships as adults.
Attachment is a term often used to describe the relationship between a child and their parents or caregivers. The term is often applied particularly to their relationship with their primary caregiver. How secure a child's attachment to their parent is created by the interactions between both the child and the parent. The relationships that a child has with their wider family/whānau are also an important part of the care and security for a child. How care is arranged can vary a lot from one family/whānau to another. The most important thing for children is to have a deep sense of secure, safe and predictable love and care from their caregivers.
When you go away, such as for a posting or deployment, if your child has a 'secure' attachment with you then they will be better able to cope with your absence.
If your child is finding it hard to get through these times there is support to help with this- go to the 'where to get help' section or 'find more information'.
Why is it important to know about attachment?
If a parent is going to be away from home then it will help a child to feel safe and secure by planning for this ahead of time. This will support your child to manage their feelings if they are sad, lonely, frustrated or worried because they miss you. Younger children (0 to 5 years old) may be more vulnerable to the effects of a deployment than older children, partly because of the way we can communicate with older children. Younger children may not be able to express their feelings and experiences with words but may do this through behaviours, e.g., going back to ‘baby’ behaviours: thumb sucking, bed wetting, hitting.
A family/whānau often includes a group of adults and children. If there are changes to this group or the way that the group connects or supports each other, then it will have an impact for all the members of the group.
A family system is about how the whole group relate, support, or nurture each other. The way the household work or chores are managed, responsibilities each member has, and the way that each member cares for or provides for other members—including shelter, food, clothing, finances, and emotional and psychological support.
It is important to have a plan for how the family will navigate the time that the military member spends away from home, what these changes will mean for each person, and how this can be a time of growth. It will also be important to plan for when the loved one is back and family system changes again. Sometimes the return home of a parent is smooth, but it is also common for children to display how much they have missed a parent in their absence, through their reactions when the parent returns. What is needed most at these times as a parent is to continue to demonstrate that secure, safe and predicable love and care as you weather this temporary cold patch or storm. NZDF has resources and support people to help navigate these times (Deployment Service Officers, Defence Community Facilitators, Social Workers, and Chaplains).
Military child wellbeing
For any whānau, in the NZDF community or elsewhere, there are a number of factors that may impact a child’s wellbeing or ability to thrive. NZ is a great country to live in but this is not always the reality for every child in our population. Some of the factors that can impact wellbeing include:
- How safe the home environment is.
- Whether there is enough income to meet basic needs.
- How the parents are supported in their transition to parenthood.
- Secure housing or accommodation.
- What social and whānau support is available.
- Whether children have early behavioural problems.
- Serious ill health or disability of family/whānau member.
- Separation or divorce.
- Step parenting or blended whānau (please note this is usually a source of support, safety and wellbeing but sometimes can also be a stressor for wellbeing).
- What cultural connections and support is in the community.
In addition to these wellbeing factors at times children may experience unique stressors through being part of the wider military whānau. These factors include-
Moving and school transition
Many camps and bases have primary schools near them and are experienced in navigating posting or moves for younger children alongside whānau.
Sometimes military families will choose to keep older children in the same location to avoid disruption with the military member working away from home. This brings stability with education but may impact the family and member with absence from home.
There are good resources available from schools, our military partners, and our NZDF support team to help navigate these changes. Go to the resources section below.
Parent or caregiver absence from home - Child Health and Wellbeing
How a child copes with a member being away from home will depend on a number of things:
- How old they are. Parental absence is generally more challenging for younger children 0 to 10 yrs old.
- What previous experience they have of a parent being away, and how this experience was for them and the family.
- How the remaining parent or caregiver copes with the deployment, and how available they are to provide support for the child.
- What resilience skills the child has to draw on.
- Whether the family have pre-existing challenges they are living with, for example a family member with disability.
- Whether the absence is a normal expected routine or short notice change.
- The perceived risks for the environment the member is deployed into.
- What preparation and support the child and family have for the absence.
- Whether there is access to family support programmes.
- Whether they are usually a two-parent family.
- What skills the remaining parent has to manage challenging behaviour.
- The degree to which any siblings in the home are supports for each other vs. often in conflict.
- How connected the family is with other military families.
- Wider family/whānau and community support available to the family locally, and at a distance.
Together with these experiences being part of the wider military whānau brings the opportunity to reinforce resilience by reinforcing protective factors.
Protective factors and risk factors
A number of factors which can increase the wellbeing of children—called protective factors. Meanwhile, risk factors may increase vulnerability to adverse family and child wellbeing. Being aware of these can be helpful to know when you may need seek additional help and support to prevent issues arising.
Where can I get help within NZDF?
- Social Work services
- Defence Community Facilitators
- 0800 NZDF4U (24/7 wellbeing support line)
- Force4Families discounts scheme
- Research has shown that having informal social networks together with formal support services are important for family and child wellbeing.
Tips and strategies for resilient military children
For more tips and strategies on this topic check out our tips, tools and resources page here.