Strong social support networks strengthen family readiness

Strong social support networks strengthen family readiness

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Arecent study identifying 16 indicators of family readiness concluded families that reach out to other military families, or participate in installation services, are overall healthier.

“The Army is working on and making good efforts in helping develop and maintain people’s social support networks,” said Dr. Stacy Hawkins, behavioral research scientist with the Research Facilitation Laboratory–Army Analytics Group.

Hawkins spoke during a Military Family Forum at the 2018 Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition and defined healthy families as those whose members have better physical health, mental health and relationships.

Currently, more than half of all soldiers have a spouse and/or dependent which equates to 276,000 active-duty families.

“Thankfully, the improvements and sort of everyday growth of technology help us stay connected to ones that we love,” Hawkins said.


Soldiers who desire to remain on active duty are more likely to stay in the Army if they receive continued support for their service from their spouse, according to Dee Geise, the chief of the Army’s Soldier and Family Readiness Division, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management (ACSIM).

Dee Geise, the chief of the Army’s Soldier and Family Readiness Division, speaks at a Military Family Forum during the AUSA Annual Meeting. (Photo by Devon Suits)

Ninety-three percent of married service members stay on active duty when their spouse favors it. In contrast, only 44 percent of service members remain if their spouse strongly favors leaving, Geise said.

“As early as 1993, we knew that spousal support was an important factor in Army retention. We knew that awareness of support programs, even if not used, increased satisfaction with military life and in turn improved retention.”

Adding, “By 2007, we knew that families that used support resources adjusted and adapted better to the military lifestyle, and we knew that families valued consistency, predictability, and services.

“Now in 2018, we see how critical social support is to overall health and the successful adaptation of soldiers and families.”

Military spouse support, however, is just one part of an extremely complex reality impacting the military’s recruitment and retention efforts.

Recruiting challenge

A 2018 joint market research study requested by the Defense Department found that today’s youth – ages 16 to 24 – are “largely disconnected from the military, (and) lack basic knowledge about military service,” she said. Today’s youth tend to have a negative view of the military, Geise added.

According to the study, 68 percent of youth feel that service members return to civilian life with psychological or emotional problems. Additionally, 53 percent of today’s youth believe service members leave service with some physical injury.

“Only 35 percent of today’s youth consider military service to be an attractive lifestyle. And only 13 percent ever seriously consider joining – a significant decline since 2004,” Geise said.

Moreover, “Sixty-one percent of today’s soldiers come from prior service families where a parent, grandparent, or sibling has served,” she added.

16 Indicators of family readiness

As the Army becomes more of a “family affair,” Geise said, ACSIM sponsored a project with the Research Facilitation Laboratory–Army Analytics Group.

The research lab launched a comprehensive literature review, collecting more than 600 documents and articles over the past 10 years. The materials contained critical evidence that supports military family policy and program decisions, Hawkins said.

After completing their review, the team found 16 indicators attributed to family readiness. These areas include:

  • Adult functioning, which focuses on the family’s physical health, mental health and social support.
  • Couple functioning, which identifies a spouses’ functioning within the marriage, the quality of the marriage, and the impact of severe family and marital distress.
  • Deployed-related experiences focus on a service member’s deployment experiences, their re-integration experiences, a spouse’s experiences during deployment, a spouse’s re-integration experience, and the children’s experience during parental deployment and re-integration.
  • Children’s functioning
  • Parenting and family functioning
  • Finances and spouse employment
  • Military life experiences
  • Accessibility to military services

During her speech, Hawkins addressed some of the team’s findings.

Adult functioning

A spouse’s physical health was determined to be the least studied area. Findings supported that the physical health of one member directly impacted the entire family. Injuries, like traumatic brain injuries, can create a strain on the family. Further, chronic and acute issues can impact the whole family; therefore, “this is an area where we could benefit from some more evidence,” Hawkins said.

Social support is the clearest and most robust patterns found across all studies, Hawkins said.

Couple functioning

The quality of a couple’s marriage during a deployment cycle was one of the highest areas of study. High-quality marriages are linked to family readiness across many indicators, Hawkins said. Developing a sense of purpose and identity can improve health and functioning, she added.

“We would benefit from a better understanding of how spouses deal with re-negotiating their roles,” upon re-integration, she added.

Finances and spouse employment

Studies determined that maintaining and developing a career can be difficult for spouses. Relocation, gender, education, and service member pay grade all have an impact on a spouse’s ability to receive and maintain a good career.

Children functioning

Overall, the study determined that military children are doing well. However, military children sometimes have more emotional or behavioral problems than their civilian peers – specifically for younger boys that have reduced social support, Hawkins said.

Social support was found to be not only critical for service members and spouses, but for a child’s development. In turn, the well-being of the home-front spouse, coupled with strong social connections with friends or family, is vital to a child’s welfare.