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Strengthening and Supporting Military Families and Families Facing Challenges

As a trainer or curriculum specialist, you and staff members play an important role in helping strengthen and empower families in your program. Each family has unique strengths and needs. All families, especially military families, experience challenging times. This lesson will provide strategies and tools to help staff and families find resources to help manage challenges.

  • Teach staff members how to identify families’ strengths and needs.
  • Provide information to families about how to locate resources in your community.
  • Develop resources to strengthen families in your program.
  • Acknowledge circumstances affecting military families.
  • Describe strategies for supporting and strengthening military families.



Think about how you manage situations in which you are faced with changes, such as moving to a new town or starting a new job. Having access to good resources can help you organize your life and meet your needs. Finding information about areas of interest or concern to you enables you to learn new things, address concerns, develop a plan of action, and deal with situations that may have otherwise been stressful and difficult to manage without the help of resources. Bouncing back from challenges is known as “resilience.” You can help staff members and families develop resilience by adopting an approach known as the 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 all of 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. Our 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 us 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

Watch this video to learn more about the Protective Factors.

Strengthening Families

Learn about the Protective Factors Framework


Families everywhere go through times in their lives when they need help accessing information to help navigate their circumstances. You may be just the person they come to for help! A family member may have a question or concern, and you may be asked to provide information, suggestions, or recommendations about a variety of topics, such as child development, challenging behavior, literacy, in- and out-of-school activities, community connections, healthcare providers, and so forth. Sometimes you may have answers and sometimes you may have to search for answers. Above all, if a family member shares a need or concern with you, respect his or her privacy.

Concrete Supports in Times of Need

The resources that families need might range from informational books to health-care services to family support groups. The first step in providing resources to families is to know what a family needs. Some family members may ask you or staff members directly about resources; however, staff members should be aware that some families have needs although they do not share them. There are many reasons a family might not share their needs, for example, pride or embarrassment might make them hesitant to talk. To ensure all families are aware of these resources, use a universal education approach. This means you let all families know about community resources, not just those who appear to be at risk of needing help. In addition to a universal education approach, discuss using universal screening tools with your program administrator. 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 with a snapshot of your program’s families, changes in family protective factors, and areas where staff can focus on increasing individual family protective factors. You can learn more about the PFS-2 in the References & Resources section. Below is a list of potential resources that families might need information about:

  • Community liaisons or family advocates
  • Health care providers
  • Government benefits (e.g., Social Security, food stamps)
  • Books with information about a specific topic (e.g., toilet training)
  • Parenting workshops and trainings
  • Local school districts
  • Local special education services
  • Child care
  • A parenting helpline

A second step in helping teams to provide information to families is learning how to locate it. The Internet is often a great place to start, and some helpful websites are:

Although there is a lot of helpful information about resources available on the Internet for families, it is important for you to make sure that classroom or school-age program teams are prepared to provide printed information. Some websites are not optimized for mobile devices, and families may prefer a printed handout. Also, staff members should be prepared to describe the programs during one-on-one conversations. This may make the resources more accessible for multilingual families or those who prefer to receive information verbally. This means staff members should be familiar enough with some appropriate resources to answer questions and help family members feel good about contacting an agency or resource.

Some families are more comfortable relying on their own resources than outsiders for help. Although staff members might be aware of a family’s need, the family might not be willing to accept help. Respecting cultural and family differences is extremely important. Although it might take time, building a strong relationship with classroom members can help the family to be open to suggestions.

Recognizing Trauma and Its Impacts

Trauma is an emotional response to a scary or terrible event or enduring condition (American Psychological Association, 2022). Each family experiences trauma differently, and it can show up in unexpected ways. A range of experiences can contribute to trauma: child abuse or neglect, grief and loss, community violence, displacement, housing insecurity, natural disasters, and wars are among the many adverse experiences children and families may experience. Military families may experience some of these stressors, such as war and family separation, more acutely than other members of your community. It is important to recognize the ways traumatic stress can build up in children, youth, families, and staff. When stress becomes overwhelming, you may see the signs in the section below. You can be a source of support, hope, and connection with families experiencing trauma.

The Explore exercise will give you practice thinking about real-world scenarios and resources that might support your families.



As a trainer or coach, you should observe the children and staff in your program for signs of stress. The first steps in strengthening families are to recognize when there is a problem and to help access resources. Look for these signs of stress in children:

Common signs of Stress in Children

  • Child seems less interested in activities they used to enjoy
  • Child has difficulty:
    • Joining a group
    • Keeping a friend
    • Dealing with others
    • Responding to failure or success
  • Signs of depression
  • Child seems uncommunicative
  • Child seems withdrawn or quiet
  • Child becomes more dependent and shows signs of regressing to young, childlike behaviors
  • General disrespect or resisting authority
  • Outbursts
  • Temper tantrums
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Lying, stealing, cheating
  • Changes in school work or grades
  • Child seems unable to focus
  • Drastic changes in appearance
  • Drastic changes in eating habits

Common Signs of Stress in adults

  • Aches and pains (headaches, neck or back pain, etc.)
  • Sleeplessness
  • Fatigue
  • More colds or illnesses
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Irritability
  • Lack of concentration
  • Anger
  • Short temper
  • Increase in alcohol or drug use
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Overeating “comfort foods”

When you see signs of stress in yourself or others, take action. Read the article "Manage Stress: Strengthen Your Support Network" from the American Psychological Association and think about how you can help other adults follow these tips in your workplace:

Five Tips to Help Manage Stress

Stress occurs when you perceive that demands placed on you–such as work, school or relationships–exceed your ability to cope. Some stress can be beneficial at times, producing a boost that provides the drive and energy to help people get through situations like exams or work deadlines. However, an extreme amount of stress can have health consequences, affecting the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems, and take a severe emotional toll.

Untreated chronic stress can result in serious health conditions including anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Research shows that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity.

But by finding positive, healthy ways to manage stress as it occurs, many of these negative health consequences can be reduced. Everyone is different, and so are the ways they choose to manage their stress. Some people prefer pursuing hobbies—gardening, playing music, creating art, while others find relief in more solitary activities, such as meditation, yoga, and walking.

Here are five healthy techniques that psychological research has shown to help reduce stress in the short- and long-term.

  1. Take a break from the stressor. It may seem difficult to get away from a big work project, a crying baby, or a growing credit card bill. But when you give yourself permission to step away from it, you let yourself have time to do something else, which can help you have a new perspective or practice techniques to feel less overwhelmed. It’s important to not avoid your stress (those bills have to be paid sometime), but even just 20 minutes to take care of yourself is helpful.
  2. Exercise. The research keeps growing – exercise benefits your mind just as well as your body. We keep hearing about the long-term benefits of a regular exercise routine. But even a 20-minute walk, run, swim or dance session in the midst of a stressful time can give an immediate effect that can last for several hours.
  3. Smile and laugh. Our brains are interconnected with our emotions and facial expressions. When people are stressed, they often hold a lot of the stress in their face. So, laughs or smiles can help relieve some of that tension and improve the situation.
  4. Get social support. Call a friend, send an email. When you share your concerns or feelings with another person, it does help relieve stress. But it’s important that the person whom you talk to is someone whom you trust and whom you feel can understand and validate you. If your family is a stressor, for example, it may not alleviate your stress if you share your works woes with one of them.
  5. Meditate. Meditation and mindful prayer help the mind and body to relax and focus. Mindfulness can help people see new perspectives, develop self-compassion and forgiveness. When practicing a form of mindfulness, people can release emotions that may have been causing the body physical stress. Much like exercise, research has shown that even meditating briefly can reap immediate benefits.

Reproduced with permission of the American Psychological Association. For additional information, please visit:

Providing Resources in Your Program

You may consider starting or expanding a lending library. A lending library can include toys, books, DVDs, and more to help families at home. It is important to provide a range of materials for families with different levels of education, different home languages, and varying concerns. Family members can check out materials to use at home, which may prove extremely useful for those without resources to buy their own books, toys, or educational materials. A lending library is helpful for families who might not have easy access to such materials or for families who were looking for more information on a specific topic.

You can also support staff as they develop and implement family education and outreach events. Make sure staff members use their knowledge of families to plan these events. The most meaningful family education events are provided “just in time” when families need the information. For example, a teacher of young infants would be unsuccessful planning a family education event about toilet training. The families of young infants would not need that information, or they might become overwhelmed. Likewise, a staff member in the school-age program should plan events around topics that are likely to be meaningful to families. Topics might include bullying, friendship, chores, etc.

Ask staff these questions when planning family education or outreach events:

  • Is the information immediately useful to most of the families who attend?
  • Is the information age-appropriate for the children of the families who attend?
  • Have families requested information about this topic?
  • Have you heard families talking about this issue?
  • Do you know or think children in these families are experiencing the issue (i.e., biting, toilet training, dating, drug use, etc.)?
  • Is the issue directly affecting families in the program (i.e., downsizing, deployment, economic concerns, etc.)?

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 maximize. 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 healthcare, 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 parent is preparing to be deployed, he or she may worry about losing the connection with a child. 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 parent’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 parent returning home may have had experiences that changed her or him 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 parents manage the many tasks of raising toddlers, children, or youth while a spouse is deployed or serving 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 or parents who have experience with a similar issue, such as a disability. One example of a resource is Parent to Parent, a national program for parents of children with special needs. 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.

Work with management to make sure there is an area in your program where families can gather informally for conversations and networking.

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 on the basis of age, developmental 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.


Families encounter a variety of needs as their children grow and may turn to you for help. In the Making Connections activity, use these scenarios to think about the appropriate resources within your program and community that you can connect with families.

Supporting military families during stressful times can be difficult and worrisome. It is easy to forget that you affect families, and at the same time, families affect you. Remembering and identifying your own thoughts and emotions can help you to be more purposeful and effective in your connections with families. Read Remembering Myself While Keeping a Focus and think about and respond to the questions in the handout.


It’s your responsibility to help staff members and families access resources. The tools below can help. Fill in the Community Resources and Contact Information sheet with information relevant to your program and post it in an area accessible to staff members.

Use the Resources for Supporting Military Families handout to help staff members learn more about ways to support military families. These strategies can also work in situations where families experience extended guardian absence, such as incarceration, extended illness, or frequent extended travel.

As you build a positive relationship with individual families, you can strengthen their protective factors in ways that are respectful to their culture and family perspective by observing their interactions, listening to their ideas, and asking questions.  Through these interactions, you will become better able to support each family. Use Strengthening Protective Factors: Engaging Questions to foster reflective thinking or lead small or large group discussions where you and staff members can adapt the questions in the activity to align with your program’s culture.   


Movement of armed forces and their logistical support infrastructure around the world. Deployment may cause families to be separated for extended periods of time
The feeling a person has when he or she has the skills to do what he or she needs to do well
Lending Library:
A place where people can find and borrow resources that will be helpful to them
An abbreviation for “Permanent Change of Station.” Used when a service member is moved from one duty station to another
Materials, such as books, DVDS and handouts that have helpful information


Which of the following is not a healthy technique to reduce stress?
What is the most common factor that causes stress when a family member is deployed?
What should you do if a family could benefit from resources but does not tell you that they need help?
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 Psychological Association (n.d.). Five tips to help manage stress.

American Psychological Association (n.d.). Trauma and shock.

Center for the Study of Social Policy (2018). Strengthening families: A protective factors framework.

Center of Excellence for Infant Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation.

Cozza, S. J., & Lieberman, A. (2007). The young military child: Our modern Telemachus. Zero to Three 27(6): 27–33.

Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (2018). Supporting children and families experiencing homelessness.   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 edition.

Harper Browne, C. (2014). The strengthening families approach and protective factors framework: Branching out and reaching deeper. Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Kreider, H., & Westmoreland, H. (Eds.). (2011). Promising practices for family engagement in out-of-school time. Information Age Publishing.

Morse, J. (2006). The new emotional cycles of deployment. San Diego, CA: U.S. Department of Defense, Deployment Health and Family Readiness Library.

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.

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. 

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.

Zero to Three (2022). Military family projects.