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Strengthening and Supporting Military Families and Families Facing Challenges

Many times, families are faced with challenges that put them and their children at risk. Families of infants and toddlers will need your support and assistance with accessing resources. Similarly, military families in your care will experience unique circumstances that can affect their functioning and well-being. This lesson will help you become aware of factors that can affect infants, toddlers and families in your program and will highlight effective ways to support these families.

  • Identify possible challenges families face and considerations for parenting in early childhood.
  • Describe the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework.
  • Acknowledge different circumstances and aspects affecting military families.



Think about a time in your life in which your family faced 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? How did you cope with these challenges? What were some factors that enabled you to successfully deal with these challenges?

Families want their young children to develop in ways that will help them become successful in school and in life. Across the country, some of our youngest children are experiencing great stress, and families find themselves without the necessary resources to provide for their healthy development.

During these early years, factors such as family stress, nonflexible work situations, lack of sleep, poor nutrition or health concerns, multiple moves, and difficult economic situations can all affect the development of infants and toddlers. These challenges can make it increasingly difficult for families to provide the support their infants and toddlers need. 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. In the face of such circumstances, early care and learning programs become increasingly important sources of support, not only for infants and toddlers, but for families as a whole.

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. It is important to understand this framework because it can help you see that the high-quality, family-centered work that you do every day in your program makes a difference in the lives of children and families. Your job is not only to care for each infant and toddler, but also to provide care and support for the whole family. The Strengthening Families Protective Factors framework gives us tools and ideas to support families.

Strengthening Families Protective Factors
(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 Support 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

Promoting Family Resilience

Resilient individuals have elements in their life that help them overcome challenges and move forward in a positive way. Researchers have identified factors that promote resilience and coping in families who deal with challenges. Some of those factors include:

  • Establishing positive early family member-child relationships
  • Maintaining family coherence through shared values and beliefs
  • Finding positive meanings in difficult situations
  • Building a sense of teamwork within the family and strengthening the family as a unit
  • Developing collaborative relationships with professionals
  • Expressing feelings and communicating effectively with each other
  • Maintaining friendships and active participation in social activities and networks
  • Receiving supports from extended family members, teachers, friends, community leaders, or neighbors (informal supports)

Supporting Military Families

When job training and deployment require that one or both parents of an infant’s or toddler’s family be away for extended periods of time, connection and relationship-building can be difficult. Through patience, cooperation, and planning, families and caregivers can work together to ensure that infants and toddlers experience the benefits of emotional security.


During deployment, many changes take place within the family that may make it difficult for young children to fully understand. Learning of deployment is often stressful for military families, and there is not always enough time for planning, organizing or working through the strong emotions involved. 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 may be unable to verbally express their feelings.

You can support families by listening and learning the ways they are supporting their infant or toddler through this transition. You can also encourage additional communication and engagement between infants, 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.”

Maintaining Connection

When the parent of an infant or toddler is preparing for deployment, he or she may worry about losing the connection and bond they have with their infant or toddler. You can support families in continuing to meet their infant or toddler’s needs and remaining actively involved in their emotional development.

In preparing for deployment, and while away, the family can be supported in many ways that continue to offer sensitivity to the situation. For example, caregivers can take or request photos of families with their infant or toddler. Photos can then be posted in the care setting, or family books can be created. Recorded stories in the parent’s voice for the infant or toddler to listen to is another ongoing source of connection with a loved one.

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.

Infants and toddlers will 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).

Connecting Families

Strong family, community and social networks can help parents manage the many tasks of raising an infant or toddler while their spouse is deployed or serving as an active-duty service member. You will likely have multiple supportive resources and information to extend to families. While the information or resource may be just what the family needs, the circumstances surrounding the family may be too overwhelming for a service member to take on or learn something new. However, you can continue to offer support by recognizing family strengths and continuing to build trusting relationships.

Below are additional ways to support military families with ideas based on recommendations from families surveyed in the National Military Family Association Report on the Cycles of Deployment:

  • Help a family to be realistic in their expectations of themselves and of each other.
  • Provide families with information about what they can expect before, during, and after deployment, recognizing that every child’s response may be different on the basis of age, stage, and temperament.
  • Offer ongoing discussions and support to families with regard to return and reunion challenges.
  • Remember that families—even those with experience—do not always have the information and support they need.


Strengthening and Supporting Families: Protective Factors

Watch this video to learn about the Protective Factors Framework

Staying Attuned and Supporting Military Families

Watch this video clip to learn more about working with military families.


As a caregiver, in collaboration with your trainer, coach, or administrator, you will think about appropriate services or resources for families facing challenges. Always remember that each family’s needs are different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Consider the following when working with families facing challenges:

  • Use a family-centered approach:
    Each family’s needs are different, and what works well with one family may not work at all with another. Support families by focusing on their particular needs and honoring their heritage and culture. Above all, focus on their strengths and build on those.
  • Be flexible and creative; individualize your approach with each family:
    For instance, if a family is having problems with transportation and has a difficult time meeting you at the center, arrange for a meeting at a place the family can safely get to.
  • Suggest informal sources of support:
    For example, 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 and related professionals who can provide assistance.
  • Aim to be understanding and nonjudgmental:
    Families facing challenges are sometimes overwhelmed with simply meeting their basic needs and may not always respond as you would like them to as you extend suggestions or recommendations. You can provide resources to families through lending libraries, family classes or workshops, inviting classroom or program guest speakers, or sharing referral information about local professionals or agencies. Consider the following ideas when it comes to providing resources to families:
  • Classroom lending library:
    A lending library can be a great starting point in your efforts to make resources available for families in your classroom. The library may include books, toys, CDs and DVDs, which families may check out and take home. Your lending library should include materials that are written and presented in a family-friendly, jargon-free language. It should cover a variety of topics and interest areas, include materials that reflect consideration of diversity and multiculturalism, and, when possible, include materials in different languages to reflect the backgrounds of all children in your classroom.
  • Family classes and workshops:
    These can be fun and inviting events that provide information on a variety of topics of interest to families. As you get to know the families of infants and toddlers in your care through the year, you may hear similar comments shared by several individuals. Use these common concerns to decide the topic of a family class or workshop. Depending on the topics of interest, you may choose to serve as the class leader for the family classroom or workshop or you may invite other professionals (e.g., pediatricians, local college instructors, program administrators) as guest speakers. Sometimes, even parents or family members of children in your classroom can serve as the guest speakers. These events can cover a variety of topics, such as nutrition, exercise, management of challenging behaviors, transition to kindergarten, school policies, or resources for families of children with special learning needs.
  • Referral information:
    Some families in your program 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 in your program 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:
    • Child care
    • Parenting helpline
    • Local school districts
    • Health-care professionals
    • Local special education services
    • Local libraries and community centers
    • Government benefits (e.g., Social Security, health-insurance programs)

Voice of a Military Family

Watch this video clip as a military family describes and shares their experience.

Use the Useful Resources for Supporting Military Families and Professionals handout to learn more about ways to support military families. Keep in mind that similar strategies can also work in situations where families experience extended guardian absence, such as incarceration, extended illness, or frequent extended travel.


How have challenging events in your own life or in the lives of any of your family members affected your family as a whole? Think about some of the infants or toddlers you care for and how challenging circumstances or events in their lives may be affecting them. How can you apply your own experiences when working with families who face challenging situations? Watch the video below to learn more about possible circumstances impacting families of infants and toddlers.

Strengthening and Supporting Families Facing Challenges

Watch these videos to learn more about possible circumstances impacting families of infants and toddlers.

In the Events Affecting Families activity, write down your thoughts and share your responses with a trainer, coach, or 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. In the Remembering Myself While Keeping a Focus really think about and respond to the questions in the handout.


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 these resources to learn more about supporting families of children in your care who may be experiencing maltreatment.

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.


Informal supports:
These refer to 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


Which of the following factors can have an impact on infants, toddlers and families?
Finish this statement: A factor that promotes family resilience is…
True or False? Returning home from a military deployment may create anxious feelings and difficulties for families.
References & Resources

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Child Abuse and Neglect: Risk and Protective Factors.

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Military OneSource. (n.d.). Deployment - Resources. 

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National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). NAEYC Position Statement: Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment.

National Military Family Association. (2006). Report on the Cycles of Deployment: An analysis of survey responses from April–September, 2005. Alexandria, VA: Author.

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. 

Park, J., Turnbull, A.P., & Turnbull, H.R. (2002). Impacts of Poverty on Quality of Life in Families of Children With Disabilities. Exceptional Children, 68(2), 151-170.

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

Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., & Soodak, L. C. (2006). Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnerships and trust. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

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.

Williams, D. S., & Rose, T. (2007). I Say Hello; You Say Goodbye: When babies are born while fathers are away. Zero to Three, 27(6): 13–19.