Advice to Therapists Treating Military Families

Military families

Military families who are exposed to stressors caused by repeated deployments, injuries, and even death may find the need for military family therapy. According to a 2015 study cited in Contemporary Family Therapy, roughly 2.7 million families have experienced significant periods of separation from their military family member since 2001. While children are resilient, and spouses of military members prepare themselves for separations, there can remain significant problems. In fact, studies show that more than half the spouses of deployed members report problems that range from worry and loneliness to anxiety, while nearly 40 percent have issues with sleep and controlling anger. Other issues cited in the study include depression and stress.

Children have a unique set of needs as well. The U.S. Department of Education reports that the 1.2 million school-age children of the military, as of 2014, lead a somewhat nomadic life, which can create added stress. As the Contemporary Family Therapy article outlines, when dealing with military family therapy, counselors need to remember that, “Although today’s service members are willing volunteers, their loved ones, especially their children, are effectively draftees; rather than enlisting of their own volition, they are conscripted into military service.”

Despite these pressures, overcoming stress can be critical to the military member’s survival. This is where the role of the therapist becomes important and military family therapy can be vital in helping both the family and the service member thrive. Therapists who work with military families should examine all stages of deployment, including a spouse’s need to take care of themselves and their children during their spouse’s deployment; supporting a military member who might suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other combat-related illnesses; helping family members manage stress; and counseling the family on how to adapt to lifestyle changes before, during and after deployments.

Advice for Therapists Treating Military Families

One of biggest challenges facing therapists involved with military family therapy is building trust with the military community. As therapist Keith Myers says in Counseling Today, “Trust is the foundation for all meaningful personal and professional relationships.” Yet it can be challenging to establish with the military population because, as a civilian, the therapist is not part of the inner circle. Therefore, it is important for therapists to develop a deep understanding of this specialized segment of the American population.

For those interested in military family therapy, Myers recommends becoming involved with the military community. For example, he suggests reaching out to a local Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) chapter. This national nonprofit organization serves veterans and service members who incurred a physical or mental injury, illness, or wound, co-incident to their military service on or after September 11, 2001, and their families. WWP provides free programs and services to address the needs of wounded warriors including connecting warriors, their families, and caregivers to their peers, and programs such as mental and physical health and wellness, and career and benefits counseling. By networking with your local WWP chapter, you can be exposed to opportunities for obtaining counseling referrals to work with the veteran population.

A final helpful tip from Myers for getting started in military family therapy is to attend national, regional and local conferences that offer education about veterans. Whether it is the national American Counseling Association (ACA) Conference or a local conference offered by your state counseling branch, this can be a relatively simple way both to absorb more knowledge about this culture and to network with other clinicians about possible referrals.

Our therapy with military families program specialization prepares students to work with individuals, couples, and families who are affiliated with all branches of the military. Using a family therapy systems perspective, students will learn about specific issues that impact service members and their families. The therapy with military families specialization will prepare students to work with military personnel and their families both in private practice and within all branches of military service.

For more information about our PhD, DMFT, or Post-Master’s Certificate programs in Marriage and Family Therapy, request information or call 866.776.0331.

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