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Strengthening and Supporting Military Families and Families Facing Challenges

Your program plays a critical role in supporting families. When your program anticipates families’ needs and connects them to resources, you support them emotionally, socially, developmentally, physically and financially. Connection to a comprehensive system of concrete supports promotes family well-being.

  • Articulate the importance of having a comprehensive system of supports available for families.
  • Identify comprehensive supports for families.
  • Apply knowledge to connect families to comprehensive supports when needed.



Supporting families can take many forms. Support can range from providing informal opportunities for families to meet to referring families for crisis intervention. The goal is to provide a comprehensive system of concrete resources so families can use the supports that best meet their goals, interests and needs. Your program is a natural place where families can get the help they need to address the risks and stressors in their lives so they can cope and parent more effectively. While this course is about families, the content is relevant when it comes to supporting staff who may experience the same difficulties as your families.

Informal Networks of Support

Networks of support are essential when it comes to solving problems. By providing a warm and inviting environment and facilitating the development of trusting relationships, you and your staff provide families with an emotionally safe place to share concerns, get advice, or ask for assistance. Never underestimate the impact of random acts of kindness at drop-off and pick-up, or the emotional support of acquaintances when someone is experiencing stress.

Program Staff

Program staff are in the best position to notice or hear if families are experiencing stress in their lives. Their daily contact with families means they may be the first ones to notice when something isn’t quite right. Some families will be very upfront when things aren’t going well and others will be very guarded, even if they have good relationships with your staff members. Your role is to make sure staff have been trained on:

  • How to recognize signs of distress or crisis
  • How to respond supportively and confidentially to distress or crisis
  • How and when to communicate concerns to you
  • How to set appropriate boundaries with families
  • How to link families to resources

Peer To Peer

Having social connections is another protective factor that enhances a family’s ability to cope with stress and solve problems in times of need. Promoting opportunities for families to connect with their peers and to learn from each other is an important way to build social connections. You know your families best, and therefore you play a pivotal role in connecting them to each other. You can promote social connections by:

  • Designing spaces in your program that are conducive to private conversations
  • Using information gleaned from surveys to offer networking sessions on identified topics
  • Facilitate introductions of families with similarities or common interests; for example, families who have twins, share similar hobbies, or have experienced a loss
  • Recruit families to participate on decision-making groups, such as for the creation of a community garden

Formal Networks of Support

In addition to providing informal networks of support, it’s important to provide more formal opportunities for social connections. Sponsoring educational opportunities and identifying available community resources are two ways to provide more formal networks of support to families.

Educational Opportunities

Families are already in your program, so offering them the opportunity to attend educational workshops while they are there makes it easier for them to get information they need. Using information from family surveys as well as your understanding of the unique needs and interests of the families you serve helps you plan workshops that are relevant. This information assists you in locating community trainers for the topics families identify. Creating a workshop schedule every six months encourages families to mark their calendars to make plans to attend. There are so many potential workshop topics. Some popular topics might include:

  • Parenting
  • Child development
  • Challenging behaviors
  • Disability
  • Handling transitions
  • School readiness and success
  • Financial literacy
  • Healthy relationships
  • Healthy cooking
  • Handling separation and loss

Community Resources

Connecting families to community resources is an important aspect of your job. Providing concrete supports in times of need is another protective factor. Anticipating and securing the types of resources your families may need ensures they that they are easily accessible when needed. Attending community events, keeping abreast of community resources, signing up for email lists and other online resources connects you with professionals and programs beneficial to your families. Having representatives from social-service agencies, faith-based communities, and mental health agencies come to your program to share their information gives families a chance to learn about resources they may need now or in the future. Scheduling information-sharing sessions about available resources at pick-up time increases the chances families will have access the information they might need.

Once community resources are identified and collaborations are in place, staff need to know what resources are available and how to refer families for services. You can publish and regularly update a resource directory so families and staff know about available resources and the processes for accessing them. To ensure all families are aware of community resources, use a universal education approach. This means you inform all families of your resource binder or social media page and various support programs, not just those who appear to be at risk of needing help. You might also choose to use a specific screening tool, in addition to a universal education approach. One widely-available and free tool is the Protective Factors Survey, 2nd edition (PFS-2). Though the PFS-2 was created to prevent child abuse and neglect, it also provides you a snapshot of your program’s families, changes in family protective factors, and areas where staff can focus on increasing individual family protective factors. There are different versions of the PFS-2, and you can refer to the References & Resources section for information about the different versions and how to use them. Also, you can access the traditional version of the PFS-2 in the Learn section.

Strengthening Military Families

Deployment is one of the most stressful events a family can experience, but it is important to remember that military families face a variety of unique stressors. A permanent change of station (PCS) can cause a great deal of stress for families as children adjust to new schools, programs, and friends. Military family members may also work unconventional or long hours when they are home. Remember that issues that affect civilian families affect military families, too: divorce or marital conflict, unemployment for a spouse or partner, and health care needs are just a few of the stressors that can impact any family.

Military life is not all about challenges, though. Military families have a variety of supports that you can help families access. Military families are often part of a strong military community. They may live on an installation with other military families, and they may have a group of friends in similar circumstances. They also have access to health-care, mental-health, and advocacy resources through their service or installation. These can be valuable assets for families. Finally, they have access to you—military child care. You understand the families’ contexts and can be a valuable source of social support.


During deployment, many changes occur within the family which children and youth may not fully understand. Learning about deployment is often stressful for military families, and there is not always the hoped-for time to plan, organize or work through the strong emotions involved. Children and youth can struggle with feelings of confusion, fear, sadness and loss. Young children are just as likely to experience these emotions as older children, although they might be unable to verbally express their feelings.

Staff members can support families by listening and learning about the ways they are supporting their children through this transition. Staff members can also encourage additional communication and engagement between children and their families. Caring adults can help children by providing words to the emotions surrounding the experience, such as, “I know you are sad and wish Mom was going to be able to stay home with you. Mom loves you. While she’s away, Aunt Karina is going to take care of you and keep you safe. You are safe and loved.”

Maintaining Connection

When a family member is preparing to be deployed, they may worry about losing their connection with their child(ren). Staff members can support families in continuing to meet their children’s needs and remain actively involved in their emotional development.

In preparing for deployment, and while away, the family can be supported in ways that continue to offer sensitivity to the situation. Staff members can create additional opportunities for connection, such as taking or requesting photos of families. Photos can be posted in the program area, or family books can be created for children. Recording stories or messages in the family member’s voice is another ongoing source of connection.

Returning Home

Families anxiously await the return of loved ones from deployment. While viewed as a long-awaited and happy occasion, returning home can also bring about anxious feelings and difficulties. Families and caregivers established and maintained daily routines that did not include the deployed family member. The family member returning home may have had experiences that changed them in some ways. Helping families prepare for and maintain connection in the return home is just as important as it is to plan for departure. Children and youth will need an opportunity to continue to feel safe and to adjust to the return of a loved one.

Connecting Families

Strong family, community and social networks can help families manage the many tasks of raising children while a spouse or family member is deployed or serving as on active-duty. Staff members should provide information and supportive resources to the families of military children in their care. While the information or resource may fit and be exactly what the family needs, the circumstances surrounding the family may be too overwhelming for them to take on or learn something new. Staff members can offer support by recognizing family strengths and continuing to build trusting relationships.

Non-military families also might benefit from the support of other families who have experience with a similar issue. One example of a resource is Parent to Parent, a national program for parents of children with disabilities. There are many local, state and national programs that might be appropriate for the families in your program. It also is possible that the families in your program could start their own support group. This is especially likely if your families are experiencing a common event, such as prolonged deployment, job loss, or relocation. By keeping track of the needs and requests of families in your building, you can help teams start the process for a new family support group. Make sure there is an area in your program where families can gather informally for conversations and networking.

Supervise & Support

There are many ways your program can support families that are experiencing challenges. Listen as families describe the importance of the support that is provided to them by program leaders and staff and share their gratitude.

Supporting Families – Making a Difference

There are people who care.

Supporting Families – Your Work Speaks Volumes

Supporting the whole family.

Below are additional ways to support military families, 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 based on their age, developmental stage, and temperament.
  • Offer ongoing discussions and support to families about return and reunion challenges.
  • Remember that families—even those with experience—do not always have the information and support they need.

Crisis Management

Most everyone will experience an unexpected crisis at some point during their life. During these times, it’s critical that concrete supports are readily available. Examples of crisis situations include: natural disasters, domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, suicide, trauma, chronic illness, death, or economic hardship. When you or your staff are confronted with a crisis situation, you need to act quickly to get the family the professional services or treatment they need.

One of the best ways to support a family experiencing a crisis is to bring stability and normalcy back into their lives as quickly as possible. In the case of children, the exposure to toxic stress, for example from neglect, parental separation, and incarceration, can create lasting negative health, education, and life outcomes. When you and your staff are well-trained on crisis management strategies, your program can be a buffer against these long-term impacts and build resiliency for children and their families.

Your program is an essential source of support for families. From caring for and keeping children safe, healthy, and happy to extending opportunities for families to learn, grow and prosper to being there when an emergency arises, you are there! You are there to provide strength, support, stability, consistency, competency and continuity. Your program connects families to their children, to other families, and to community resources. Your program is central to families’ well-being.


Families experience a variety of challenges and may turn to you for resources and support. Examine the scenarios in the Making Connections activity and identify appropriate resources within your program and the community that you offer families. You can also use the Protective Factors Survey to better understand families' strengths and the challenges they may be facing so that you can offer resources that will be most supportive to them.


In your work as a Program Manager, you may not hear directly how important you, your staff, and your program are to the families you serve. Receiving feedback and gratitude is an important part of offering responsive care, and building positive relationships with families. Think about the videos you watched in this lesson, and the feedback you heard from parents about how they feel about the support their children’s programs provide to their families. Read and respond to the questions in the Encouraging Feedback from Families activity to think about how your program invites and responds to feedback from families.


Which of the following is considered an informal network of support?
True or false? Your program doesn’t get involved when a family has a crisis.
A staff member asks how they can best support a child and their family when a family member is deployed. How do you respond?
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.

Administration for Children and Families. (2020). Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Shelters: A Guide to Support the Safe and Healthy Development of Young Children in Shelter Settings.

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (n.d.).

Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (2021). Supporting Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness. Eight modules for supporting children and families. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

FRIENDS National Center for Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention. (n.d.). The Protective Factors Survey (2nd ed.).

Kids Included Together. (2019).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Strengthening the Military Family Readiness System for a Changing American Society. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. (2016). Research on Early Childhood 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. (2017). Early Childhood Self-Assessment Tool for Family Supportive Housing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

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

U.S. Department of Education. (2019). Early Childhood Homelessness: State Profiles 2019.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (n.d.). Child Welfare Information Gateway: Protective Factors to Promote Well-Being.

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.