Athens, Ga. – Despite past childhood experiences and challenges of military life, new University of Georgia research reveals that military families function as well as civilian families.
Research led by Assaf Oshri, assistant professor of human development and family science and Jay Mancini, a professor of human development and family science and director of UGA’s Family and Community Resilience Laboratory, was published in Family Relations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies.
“An important everyday life factor that differentiates military families is the work situation and demands that military members face,” said Mancini, the Anne Montgomery Haltiwanger Distinguished Professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “There’s probably no other work situation exactly like it. They have long hours, are on call 24/7 and often find themselves in danger.”
Work demands are even more substantial when a family member is deployed, and there is fallout for all family members.
The study’s findings, Oshri said, illustrate the concept of equifinality, meaning that the same results can be achieved through different paths that families take, and which is important for professionals who support families to recognize.
The research, gathered on an active duty military installation, includes data on married two-parent families, single-parent families and non-married partners. Using online surveys, the research team asked service members and their civilian spouses/partners whether they had adverse childhood experiences and how their current family functioned.
“Adverse childhood experiences have the potential to carry on into a service member’s current family structure,” Oshri said. “To understand how early childhood experiences persist in adults’ lives, we asked about both positive and negative family situations when they were growing up.”
Childhood experiences were measured by 15 survey questions that asked about stressful interactions in a service member’s family of origin. Questions included whether family members yelled at each other or whether they fought physically.
“We know that military families may encounter multiple stressors related to the nature of their demanding service, and when family members—particularly the service member—have a history of adverse childhood experiences, relational aspects of the family can be more tenuous,” Oshri said.
Along with questions on childhood experiences, the surveys, administered to more than 270 military families with over 900 individuals in these families, asked them about how their current family functioned.
“Active duty respondents and their partners each responded to questions about cohesion, flexibility, disengagement, enmeshment, rigidity and chaos,” Oshri said.
Survey results showed that even though military families were structured differently, they still had high levels of communication and functionality.
According to Oshri, “Our investigation identified an adaptive family functioning typology (i.e., rigidly balanced family profile) whose family members generally experienced high levels of adversity in their childhood, yet partners, children and active duty members in this profile each reported high levels of successful functioning in multiple psychological and health domains. Thus, a specific family structure served as a protective factor to service members who reported adverse childhood experiences.”
“We looked at multiple types of family structures, such as the rigidly balanced,” Mancini said. “We typically associate being rigid in a family as not a good thing. Even in those families, they negotiated and navigated their lives so that there were still high levels of cohesion and high levels of satisfaction. Quite a number of family structures ended up being very productive.
“Families figure out their pathways in multiple ways. At the end of the day, military families are doing well even though the pathways they took vary. There are various pathways that families can take that result in similar outcomes.”
Mancini hopes the research will influence the way that professionals-like family practitioners, Extension specialists, psychologists and social workers-view the functioning of military families.
“The lesson for these professions is that there are multiple ways that families are figuring out their lives,” Mancini said. “You can structure programs based on what the findings show. There is more than one way to support family cohesion, success, and well-being.”
Co-authors include Mallory Lucier-Greer of Florida State University and James L. Ford, Catherine Walker O’Neal and Amy Laura Arnold of the UGA Family and Community Resilience Laboratory.
Funding for this research was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NIFA award number 2009-48680-06069. The study is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/fare.12108/abstract.