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26 Oct 2021

Fathers in the Military

Balancing parental and work responsibilities is difficult enough – but did you know that around 37% of the United States Armed Forces’ 1.3 million active-duty Service members have children? Thankfully, there’s a wealth of research on these families’ experiences. Today, we’ll consider research regarding fathers’ experiences in the military, paying particular attention to how fathers navigate parenting during challenges like deployment and reintegration. We’ll discuss some of the difficulties military fathers face during deployment and reintegration, along with how they affect military fathers and their children. We’ll also provide parenting resources intended to help balance work and family life.

Common challenges among military fathers and how they impact the family

Service member fathers face many parenting difficulties during their military careers, but two of the biggest challenges are deployment and reintegration.

Deployment is a stressful time for military families. The extended separation they face can take an especially heavy toll on fathers. Research shows that when fathers perceive a threat to their safety during deployment, their parenting becomes less sensitive. This, in turn, may cause their children to exhibit social and emotional difficulties (e.g., poor peer interactions, unhealthy emotional expression) as well as behavioral problems (e.g., hyperactivity, defiance). Similarly, deployed fathers who have difficulty managing their emotions may engage in more coercive parenting (e.g., irritability, bossiness, persistent negativity). Coercive parenting, in turn, is linked to poorer overall well-being for children, with outcomes including internalizing (e.g., depression, anxiety) and externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression, hyperactivity).

Reintegration, the period of a Service member’s adjustment to “normal” life after deployment, also poses challenges for returning fathers. Reintegration, like deployment, is often associated with increased stress for the entire family. Returning fathers report less patience, more irritability, and more communication problems with their family during reintegration. Research further finds that military fathers’ mental health concerns (e.g., depression, posttraumatic stress disorder) can also contribute to their children’s’ behavioral problems years after reintegration. Additionally, stress during reintegration sometimes leads to less emotionally sensitive parenting (e.g., less supportive, not supervising children as needed) by military fathers, which can have consequences for child adjustment (e.g., behavioral problems) during reintegration as well.

How fathers can mitigate the risks of military-related parenting challenges

Being a father and Service member does not automatically result in negative consequences for your children: frequent father involvement contributes to better parent and child well-being. Specifically, when fathers spend more time with their children both at home (e.g., recreation, shared activities) and during deployment (e.g., setting time each week for video calls) their well-being is greater. Spending time with their child also gives fathers untold opportunity to model positive parenting practices, such as supporting the child’s decision-making and encouraging positive behavior.

Military-related stressors such as long periods of separation put military fathers’ own well-being at risk. Given this reality, it’s important that fathers care for themselves. Practicing mindfulness and self-care are useful ways for fathers to attend to their own emotional needs; the practices also serve as useful models for children. Furthermore, fathers should consider professional help to address their mental health concerns: such help in turn makes them better equipped to care for their children.

Beyond mental health, fathers may choose to address the quality of their parental relationships. Evidence suggests that a father’s relationship with his child’s mother affects the child’s mental health (e.g., depression). Military fathers might therefore invest in their romantic relationships with couples counseling or relationship education in order to reduce potential negative consequences for their children.

Lastly, fathers can also mitigate the risk of parenting challenges by attending parenting programs. The Department of Defense has invested in evidence-based parenting programs and resources to promote military family readiness and resilience. These programs address a variety of family-related topics, including parent-child communication, bonding with children, and finding a new “normal” upon returning from deployment. To learn more about these programs, check out the resources listed at Military OneSource.

Despite facing many challenges in balancing work and family responsibilities, military fathers continue to be resilient and positively impact their children. By using an abundance of resources for military families and improving their parenting skills as a result, fathers can ease the burden of Service-related challenges borne by both the family and themselves.

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