Skip to main content

Strengthening and Supporting Military Families and Families Facing Challenges

Many times, families are faced with challenges that put them and their children at risk. Military families deal with specific circumstances that can affect their functioning and well-being. Providing support is one of the most important things we can do for families. This lesson will provide an introduction to the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework. You will learn about each factor, how you can provide support, and challenges you may face when working with children and their families. This lesson will also help you understand common situations military families face, such as frequent moves and deployment.

  • Identify situations in which a family member may need assistance understanding their child’s development.
  • Develop methods of conducting individual conferences with families to support a child’s development or learning environment.
  • Apply knowledge of appropriate resources when necessary to support families.
  • Identify common effects of deployment and how children and families are affected.



Think about a time in your life when your family was facing a challenge. Maybe you or a family member was dealing with health issues, financial issues, loss of employment, relationship difficulties, moving to a new place, or separation from family and friends. How did these challenges affect you and the rest of your family as a unit? How did you cope with these challenges? What were some factors that enabled you to deal with these challenges successfully?

Just as we need to appreciate the many variations among families, we must also acknowledge the various contexts and environments in which families function. All families face challenges at some point throughout their life. For some, these challenges may pose risks for children as well as other family members. As a family child care provider, it is important to know that these challenges may also affect families’ willingness to seek help or participate in services, as well as their ability to actively participate in your family child care-related experiences and events.

Families everywhere sometimes need support accessing information to help them navigate difficult circumstances. Families will look to you for support. A family member may have a concern, and you may be asked to provide information, suggestions, or recommendations about a variety of topics, such as child development, challenging behaviors, literacy, in-school and out-of-school activities, community connections, health care providers, related services, and so forth. Sometimes you will have answers and sometimes you may have to look for a solution or answer. Above all, respect and maintain families’ confidentiality. If a family member shares a need or concern with you, it is important to honor his or her privacy, but you can also recommend resources if asked. Always treat their information sensitively. Offering knowledge and guidance is a way of strengthening the bond between you and the families of children in your care. It is important to be available for families and to provide support whenever possible and appropriate.

Challenges that Pose Risks for Children and Families

There are many factors that can affect family functioning and child development, such as poverty, substance abuse, illness, exposure to violence, unemployment, marital discord, separation from parents, and trying to adapt to a new culture and learn a new language. Some family members may also feel isolated in their role as a parent due to divorce, challenging relationships with their own families, single-parenthood, or a move that takes them away from nearby family. These challenges can make it increasingly difficult for families to provide the support their children need. Regardless of the situation, family life and children’s behaviors are affected when families are challenged. Families are complex systems of interconnected individuals, so when an event affects one individual in the family, it may affect all family members. In the face of such circumstances, family child care providers become increasingly important sources of support, not only for the children they serve, but also for families as a whole.

Poverty puts children and families at a greater risk for stress, illness, and social isolation. Exposure to violence may have negative effects on children’s school performance, emotional stability, and social competence. Substance abuse may affect family members’ ability to care and provide for children and, as a result, children may be maltreated and neglected. Separation from family members, particularly parents, causes stress and emotional instability for all family members, especially young children. Marital discord or trying to adapt to a new culture or ways of living may also increase stress for all family members.

The stress families experience during these challenges may affect their patience and energy levels. Stress can weaken families’ sense of competence and erode their sense of control. At times, the complexity of these difficulties may seem overwhelming to families and providers. Although challenging, it is important to try to come up with appropriate and meaningful resources, suggestions, and solutions.

Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework

The Center for the Study of Social Policy has developed the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework. Originally designed as a framework to prevent child abuse and neglect, the protective factors can be a useful way to approach your work with families. This framework can help you see that the high-quality, family-centered work that you do every day in your home makes a difference in the lives of children and families. Your job is not only to care for each child, but also to provide care and support for the whole family. The Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework gives you tools and ideas to support families.

Strengthening Families Protective Factors
by the Center for the Study of Social Policy
(Figure 1)

  1. Parental Resilience

    Families are able to manage stress and bounce back from challenges.

  2. Knowledge of Child Development and Parenting

    Adults know what to expect as children grow and are able to meet their child's needs at each stage of development.

  3. Social Connections

    Families know there are people who care about them and who they can call on for help.

  4. Concrete Supports in Times of Need

    Families can get the help they need when crises strike: food and shelter, medical and mental health services, social, legal, and educational resources.

  5. Social and Emotional Competence of Children

    Social and emotional development promotes healthy relationships with others. Children with strong relationships, who can regulate their own behavior, express their emotions, and relate to others are at lower risk of maltreatment.

You can learn more about the Protective Factors Framework by visiting

Now that you have been introduced to the protective factors, we will discuss each factor in greater detail. This will give you concrete information and examples of each factor as well as methods for implementing them into your family child care home.

The Protective Factors: Parent Resilience

We all know that stress can adversely affect our lives. What makes us resilient is how we choose to deal with and overcome a stress or challenge in our life. Some methods for helping families through challenges are:

  • Create a welcoming environment where families feel comfortable seeking help, visiting any time and asking questions.
  • Encourage suggestions and feedback from families on how to work with their child or ways you can improve your program.
  • When discussing sensitive topics like behavior issues or incidents, be calm and supportive. It also helps to have some concrete examples and suggestions on how to help the situation and move forward.
  • Take the time to listen to families. Sometimes, family members may need you to be a supportive listener to help them through a situation.

Families of school-age children are faced with challenges that are different from those posed to families with younger children. Busy schedules and rapid changes in development cause family members to experience added stress. Here are some examples of possible challenges for families, and how you can help.

Possible Challenges for
Families of School-Age Children
How to Help

School-age children can be very busy when they try to balance school, sports, clubs and other activities as well as their family obligations and social life. This can cause stress for families, because of the financial requirements, time commitments, and transportation needs.

Help school-age children organize their schedules by working with them to create daily or weekly calendars.

Do your best to make sure that children are staying on task when working on their homework assignments or studying, this will give children more time to spend with their families at home.

The academic requirements for school-age children become increasingly difficult as they progress in school. This can cause stress for families because of the time commitment required. It can also create challenges for families who don’t have resources available to assist their children with their homework.

As school-age children complete their homework, be sure to check it for accuracy. If you notice a child struggling in a particular topic, learn how your program can help provide assistance when possible. Be aware of resources that are available to assist with homework (resources such as workbooks, additional reading materials, and online tutoring help) and make recommendations for parents.

The Protective Factors: Knowledge of Child Development and Parenting

Knowledge of developmental milestones and various parenting techniques is an important part of your role as a family child care provider. When serving multiple ages in your family child care setting, it is especially important that you are familiar with the developmental milestones of each age group that you serve. There will be many times when families will come to you seeking resources, knowledge, and help. When a family member comes to you with questions about child development, you should have a variety of quality resources available to share. These resources should include resources available locally in the community, websites with useful information, and printed materials that parents can read. A great place to start is the developmental milestones charts and information guides in the Family Child Care Cognitive Development course. As you learned in the Cognitive Development course, children develop at different paces. Parents may compare their child with others. If you notice this happening, or if a family member brings something to your attention, remind them that not all children will develop at the same pace. Use the milestone charts and information guides as tools to provide information about typical child development. When working with families that may have a difficult time understanding you because of language barriers or other differences, work with your local resource and referral agency, trainer, coach, or family child care administrator to provide a translator or other support.

The key is to make families feel welcome and comfortable discussing their child’s development so that you can all work together to help the child succeed. Families might also come to you with their parenting preferences and beliefs, as well as any cultural traditions or practices that affect the way a child may develop. You should keep the following in mind when providing this type of support to families:

  • Information given should always be accurate and appropriate.
  • When providing information, always be respectful and positive.
  • All family practices should be respected and honored. If you suspect that a particular practice may be dangerous or negatively affect a child’s development, share your concerns with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.
  • If you are unsure of how to answer a question or choose a resource, check with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.

Here are some examples of possible challenges for families, and how you can help:

Possible Challenges for
How to Help

Some infants and toddlers might experience separation anxiety when their parents leave. Sometimes this can cause parents to feel guilt or sadness when leaving their child for work or school.

Acknowledge how the parent and the child feels. Allow time for feelings and help create goodbye rituals. Reassure the parents that their child is safe and well cared for while they are gone, and offer children tangible reminders of their parents such as pictures.

Some preschoolers might use scissors proficiently and others might just be learning how to hold them. Parents might feel the need to compare the development of one child to another in your home. ​

Refer that parent to a developmental milestones chart. Accentuate the positive things that child can do and offer resources, tips, and at-home ideas to support growth and development in the area of concern.

Unlike younger children, school-age children have three “teachers” in their lives: their family, their schoolteacher, and you. Sometimes, this can cause challenges when sharing information or helping a child through a situation. ​

Whenever possible, work together with the family and the school. If a school is using specific information or resources to support the family, find out what it is and determine if you can use the same resources. It will help the family and the child if all educators are on the same page.

Older school-age children may begin to experience rapid developmental changes as they enter puberty. Sometimes, these changes can be difficult for parents to handle and accept because it means their little girl or boy is not so little anymore.

Provide information for families on child development and puberty. Reassure them that this is a natural part of growing up; ask them to reflect on what it was like for them at this stage.

The Protective Factors: Concrete Supports in Times of Need

We all know that tragedy can strike at any time for a family. Unfortunately, you may encounter this during your work as a family child care provider. When family members find themselves in times of need, it is up to you to provide as much support as possible. A “time of need” can mean a variety of things, such as:

  • Inability to meet basic economic needs such as food, housing, health care, and clothing
  • Domestic violence
  • Mental illness
  • Substance abuse
  • Fatal or long-term illness
  • Death of a family member

When an event like this occurs, work with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator to provide concrete support for the family. Keep in mind that older children will have an awareness of the situation because of their age and independence.

The Protective Factors: Social and Emotional Competence of Children

The social and emotional competence of children involves their behavior and emotional well-being. This is increasingly important as children grow because it affects their ability to make and maintain positive relationships. Family members may have questions or concerns about their child’s social or emotional competence. Below are some ideas you can use to support families:

  • Be aware of the daily interactions of the children in your care. Make observations when you see something that may be a concern. If you notice a behavior that is cause for concern, bring it to the attention of your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator. (You will learn more about social and emotional health in the Self & Cultural Understanding course.)
  • Talk with family members about behaviors they see at home, in your family child care program, or at their school. Have an open conversation about concerns and successes.
  • Create a safe and welcoming environment that allows all children to feel comfortable. This will help children feel that they can express themselves, communicate their needs, and form relationships.

Supporting Military Families

Military families face challenges unlike those experienced by civilians. These challenges may pose unique risks for children and the family as a whole. The nature of a military family member’s work can involve frequent moves or periods of separation from their family members; this can affect a child’s emotional well-being. As a family child care provider, it is important for you to recognize when children are dealing with emotional stress and how to effectively support children and their families during this difficult time in their life.


Deployment has a large effect on family functioning, particularly the relationships between caregivers and children. When children experience long periods of separation from their parent or guardian, their family life, routines, emotional state, and behaviors may all be affected. Deployment can add a great deal of stress and anxiety to families. Children may experience fear, sadness, confusion, or loss. You can support families during deployment by fostering ongoing communication. As a family child care provider, you can work with families to ensure they feel well supported during this challenging time. It is important that families and caregivers work together to access needed resources. It is also essential to acknowledge that as a provider, you may also feel overwhelmed when trying to support military families. If you need help supporting military families of children in your care, talk with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.

Children struggle with feelings of confusion, fear, sadness, and loss. Infants and toddlers are just as likely to experience these emotions as older children, although they are unable to verbally express their feelings and may have less understanding of what is happening. You can support families by listening, and learning the ways they support their infant or toddler through this transition. You can also encourage additional communication and engagement between infants or toddlers and their families. Caring adults can help infants and toddlers by giving words to the experience and their emotions surrounding the experience, such as, “This feels sad and we both wish Mommy was going to be able to stay home with you. Mommy loves you and while I’m away, Aunt Karina is going to take care of you and keep you safe. You are safe and loved.”

Deployment Preparation

While preparing for deployment, many families experience heightened anxiety and stress. If deployment occurs without warning, there may not be time for preparation. No matter the circumstances, families and children can be vulnerable during this time. As a family child care provider, remind families to take care of themselves, as this will also help children cope better. Consider the following to support children and families before deployment:

  • If possible, ask family members to share the time of upcoming deployment. Communicate with families to learn ways to support them, and ask how and when they prefer to exchange information.
  • Prepare materials to use with children during deployment. Photograph children with their loved ones. Audio- or video-record the deploying caregiver reading favorite stories, singing songs, or leaving special messages to their children.
  • Plan for special events where family members can come to your home and be part of an activity or go on a field trip, giving them an opportunity to spend quality time with their child in your home. Take pictures of these activities and display them in your home.
  • Be sensitive to children’s needs and emotions during this time. Watch for signs of stress (e.g., crying, behavioral problems, irritability, inability to stay on task, mood swings, clinging), and develop a plan of action. Involve the families in suggesting management strategies to establish consistency between home and child care environments.
  • Help families identify possible sources of support (e.g., other family members, neighbors, friends, or counselors) who can help them throughout this process.
During Deployment

Children and families greatly miss their loved ones during this time. Children may experience sadness, anger, anxiety, and restlessness. Acknowledge that what works for one family may not work for another family. Consider the following to support children and families during active deployment:

  • Provide stability and minimize changes to routines. This also applies to all children and families dealing with transitions and new experiences. For example, don’t change your hours of care suddenly in the middle of this deployment.
  • Use lots of affirmations with children. In response to comments children make about missing a parent or wanting to be with their mom, dad, or loved one, say things like “I can see that you miss your dad a lot,” or “I know you wish Mommy was here today.”
  • If a child is having a hard time expressing their emotions, provide the words for them. You can say, for example, “I know that you are feeling upset, and that’s OK.”
  • Involve the parent who is deployed by sending them photos, newsletters, videos, or special items that their children have produced (e.g., a drawing, a poem, or a few special words).
  • Use videos or audio recordings you made before the family member was deployed (of family members sharing special messages, reading stories, singing songs, etc.) to help children cope with difficult situations.
  • Offer children opportunities to stay emotionally connected with their loved ones who are deployed by writing letters, making drawings, or recording videos for them.
  • Maintain and encourage ongoing communication with the family.
Returning Home

Families anxiously await the return of loved ones from deployment. While viewed as a long-awaited, happy reunion, returning home can also bring about anxious feelings and difficulties for families. Families and caregivers together established and maintained daily routines that not everyone was able to be a part of. The parent or caregiver returning home likely had experiences that may have changed her or him in some ways. Helping families prepare for and maintain connections after the return home is just as important as it was in planning for departure. Consider the following to support children and families when a family member returns from deployment: 

  • Help children prepare for their family members’ return by talking about it. Always check in with families to get their suggestions about what may or may not work with their child.
  • Organize special events (e.g., a field trip or lunch) and invite family members who have returned from deployment to participate. This can help reconnect the parent with your program.
  • Watch for signs of stress in children, and work with families to support their children.
  • Acknowledge that this may be a difficult time for families and children, and be patient and understanding.
  • Infants and toddlers will especially need opportunities in which they feel safe to adjust to the return of a loved one. As a caregiver, you and families together can use language to describe what the infant or toddler may be feeling. Follow the infant’s or toddler’s cues and watch for signs of engagement (e.g., eye contact, smiling, cooing) and disengagement (e.g., turning away, arched back, stiffened body).

You can find additional information on supporting military families in the Strengthening Military Families resources in the Learn Section.

Factors That Promote Resilience and Effective Coping in Families

In your work with families and children who face challenges, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes these challenges have multiple causes and that families may require help that goes beyond what you can provide in your home. You must recognize that assisting families experiencing challenges may require a wide range of services. As a family child care provider, you may be one of several professionals working to support these families.

There are factors that promote effective coping, which may help you support families facing challenges. In addition to the protective factors discussed in the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework, researchers have identified additional factors that promote resilience and coping in families who deal with challenging circumstances:

  • Adult family members setting and following rules at home
  • Establishing positive family member-child relationships
  • Maintaining family coherence through shared values and beliefs
  • Families finding positive meanings in difficult situations
  • Teamwork within the family and strengthening the family as a unit
  • Family members developing collaborative relationships with professionals
  • Family members expressing feelings and communicating effectively with each other
  • Maintaining friendships and participating in social activities and networks
  • Receiving informal supports, such as from extended family members, teachers, friends, community leaders, or neighbors


In this video, listen as a parents and caregivers talk about ways to support the specific needs of military families.

Supporting Military Families

Watch this video to learn ways that you can support military families.


You can provide resources to families in your family child care program through resources like handouts, pamphlets, websites, and referral information about local professionals or agencies. Talk to you trainer, coach or family child care administrator for more information and resources. 

Some families in your family child care will require more specific information related to their particular needs. In this case, you may be able to provide information about professionals, agencies, or other services. Consider gathering information about different resources that may be helpful to families at the beginning of the year to make sure your information is current and up-to-date. As you get to know the families of children better, you may also be able to find resources that are more specific to their needs. Your list of resource topics may include the following:

  • Parenting helpline
  • Community classes or speakers
  • Local school districts
  • Health-care professionals
  • Other local child care options
  • Local special education services
  • Local libraries and community centers
  • Government benefits (e.g., Social Security, health-insurance programs)

As a family child care provider, you must be prepared to consider the appropriate services or resources for military families and families facing challenges. Always remember that each family’s needs are different from the next, and that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Consider the following when working with families facing challenges:

  • Use a family-centered approach. Each family’s needs are different, and what works well for one family may not work at all for another. Support families by focusing on their particular needs and honor their heritage and culture. Above all, focus on their strengths and build on those.
  • Be flexible and creative and individualize your approach with each family. For instance, if a family has transportation problems and difficulty meeting you at your program, arrange to meet at a place the family can safely get to. Let families choose how much and how often they wish to communicate with you about their lives in the military and during deployment.
  • Suggest informal sources of support. Those can include other family members, neighbors, friends, church members, or other individuals the family knows and feels comfortable with.
  • Make resources available to families. These may include community organizations, related professionals who can provide assistance, or child care providers. Don’t assume that families who have experienced deployment several times have the needed resources in place.
  • Overall, be understanding and nonjudgmental. Families facing challenges are sometimes overwhelmed meeting their basic needs and might not always respond to your suggestions or recommendations.


How have challenging events in your own life or in the lives of any of your family members affected your family as a whole? What factors helped you cope during these times of need? Think about some of the children in your family child care program and how challenging events in their lives may affect them. How can you apply your own experiences when working with families who face challenging situations? Read and review the Events Affecting Families activity. Write your down your thoughts and share your responses with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.

Next, think about your work with military families. Supporting military families during times of stress is difficult and worrisome. It is easy to forget that you have a big impact on families and that at the same time, families impact you. Remembering and identifying your own thoughts and emotions can help you to be more purposeful and effective in your connections with families. Read and review the activity, Remembering Myself While Keeping a Focus. Read through, think about, and respond to the questions.


Family stress and disorganization puts children at risk for maltreatment. Child maltreatment is the behavior towards a child that is outside the norms of conduct and entails substantial risk of causing physical or emotional harm. Four types of maltreatment are generally recognized as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse (psychologic abuse), and neglect. Use the Supporting Families Facing Child Maltreatment list of websites to learn more about supporting families of children in your care who may be experiencing maltreatment. Speak with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator if you suspect that there is abuse or maltreatment in the homes of any children you care for in your program and follow your state’s policies.

Knowing what to expect from children who experience separation from caregivers is important for coming up with ideas for meaningful supports. Read and use the Emotional Cycles of Deployment resource to learn more about deployment and how it affects families. Consider the remaining attachment resources to support military families in the care of their children. 

Families may turn to you when questions or concerns arise. A great way to build supportive relationships is to keep a collection of available resources that can be shared with families in your program. Use the Family Counseling Resource activity to create a resource to help families learn about local agencies that provide family counseling. CDA candidates should use the CDA Family Resource Guide: Family Counseling activity to complete this activity.


a military transfer or reassignment to another location; deployment lengths can vary but typically last multiple months
Informal supports:
family members, friends, neighbors, church members, association members, coworkers, or others who are not paid to do so but provide social support to children and their families
Protective factors:
conditions or attributes in individuals, families, or communities that promote health and well-being
the ability to recover or “bounce back” from difficulties


Which of the following are factors that promote resilience in families who are facing challenges?
True or false? When a family member returns home from a deployment, it can be a stressful time for families and children.
Why is it important as a family child care provider to have a solid knowledge of child-development milestones?
References & Resources

Administration for Children and Families. (2017). Early Childhood Homelessness in the United States: 50-State Profile. Washington, D.C.: Department of Health & Human Services.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012). Family Life: Components of Good Communication.

Bumgarner, M. (2011). Working with School-Age Children. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Center for the Study of Social Policy (n.d.). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework.

Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (2018). Supporting Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness. Eight modules for supporting children and families. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Hanson, M. J., & Lynch, E. W. (2004). Understanding Families: Approaches to diversity, disability, and risk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Harper Browne, C. (2014). The Strengthening Families Approach and Protective Factors Framework: Branching out and reaching deeper. Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Joining Forces Interagency Policy Committee. (2021). Strengthening America's military families. Matching their devotion: Deepening our commitment to the families, caregivers, and survivors of service members and veterans.

National Military Family Association. (2018).

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Research on Early Childhood Homelessness. (2016). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 

Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families. (2017). Self-Assessment Tool for Early Childhood Programs Serving Families Experiencing Homelessness. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families. (2020). Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Shelters. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families. (2017). Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Supportive Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 

Schor, E., American Academy of Pediatrics. (1995). Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12. New York: Bantam.

Sesame Street in Communities. (n.d.). Family Homelessness. New York: Sesame Street.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Policy Statement on Meeting the Needs of Families with Young Children Experiencing and At Risk Homelessness. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.