mental health

We build submarines and the defence force. Now we must support the families who work in them


The Federal Government has plans to expand Australian Defence Forces (ADF) to a 40-year high. They hope to increase the forces by 30% (18,500 extra personnel by 2040), the biggest increase since the Vietnam War. This will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of children and parents impacted by military service. 

It won’t just be enough to recruit new soldiers, sailors and aviators – retention will also be critical and we know that Defence families play a key role here. Defence families are depended on to provide a crucial service to the ADF, often at significant cost to their own wellbeing. Defence families are mostly ‘invisible’ in our communities, and struggle to get access to the support and understanding they need.  

Our PhDs explored the experiences of young children and partners in defence families and sheds light into some of the factors affecting the ADF, military members, and their spouses, children and loved ones.

Dutiful housewife and children model

One of the major challenges is attracting and retaining staff because of the high demands of the job. The military is a ‘greedy institution’, demanding great sacrifice from the defence member and their family

Most Defence families are expected to relocate at least every 2 years. Frequent relocations, and absences from home, make it incredibly challenging for Defence families to have their own careers and supportive relationships within education settings, as the former Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton highlighted in comments earlier this year. The new federal government announced a funding boost to 48 community-based organisations providing value to defence families and building connections in July.

As Defence is recognising, the expectation of partners who need to sacrifice their own career to support the career of the ADF member is out of step with the vast majority of modern families with dual careers. It is also out of step with children who are connected to peers, educators and the wider community.

Over 73% of Australian couple families have two sources of income and women make up 19% of the ADF. The ADF seeks to be an employer of choice. 

Children are often quite connected to their extended family, and their community through extracurricular activities. Additionally, many build a sense of belonging and the sense of place within their education communities.

Perfect female partners and perfect children

There is pressure on partners of Defence members to perform a ‘perfect spouse’ role, which is at odds with modern society.

The model assumes ‘perfect partners’ will sacrifice not only their career, but will also dutifully perform a ‘perfect spouse’ role. They will not complain about the inconvenience of Defence life. For example, participants said they felt pressure to ‘suck it up and deal with it’ when they were having trouble during deployments. 

The model often requires families to give up access to sources of support which provide a protective buffer. These include extended family, friends within their community, educators, health care professionals and community groups. Additionally, access to specialist services may not be available where they are posted, or those services might not understand the experience of being a military family. 

Incorrect or outdated information about the support Defence families receive can have negative impacts, such as the perception that families receive free housing, as well as some more outlandish claims. For example, one participant said some of her friends thought she travelled on Air Force planes every time they went on holiday.

Children can also experience a lack of empathy from peers, and even teasing if they attend early childhood services or schools that have little experience with military families.

When families don’t receive the support and understanding they need from their communities, it can impact their willingness to stay associated with the military. 
Retention of highly trained members is difficult, with many personnel citing ‘family reasons’ when they leave. As one family explained

We had never planned for it to be Caleb’s career forever. In the end we chose to leave much earlier because of the promotion they offered him. This meant he was going to be away more often for training. When Jess turned 3 we realised Caleb had only been there 1 year of her life…(a) big issue for us. Caleb had missed the first soccer games and other big events in the children’s lives.

The military also makes enormous demands from spouses and families. Defence families have the impossible task of keeping each ‘institution’ (military and family) satisfied. 

This is especially the case when military members work away for months on deployment or lengthy training sessions. This leaves the partner to cope with their own careers, the needs of the children and run the household themselves. 

This is especially stressful when the children are younger and are less able to understand the sudden disappearance of a parent. Partners are dealing with their own responses, and the responses of their children which can sometimes feed off each other. Children’s responses vary, and can include a regression in physical, social, emotional and cognitive (learning) skills.

While time apart is challenging, reintegration is often harder, as the defence member tries to fit back into family life. The children and family have adapted and grown while they were away. 

He was really tired and tried sleeping during the day …. The kids … made really loud noises suddenly and he would be angry… it is hard because when you are on base you are with adults for 9 months…adults who are good at following orders. When he came home, he was dealing with a toddler and a pre-schooler.

… the kids were up to different stages so he was often babying them and they didn’t want to be babied. Nine months is a long time in a young child’s life and they changed a lot. He was also really upset by some of the parenting decisions I had made in his absence.

Some children emotionally protect themselves by not getting close to the parent who has been away. 

Sam had a rebellion against me …There was some nervousness about coming home and trying to fit back in with the children, especially after Sam’s episodes of not wanting to have anything to do with me.

Educators reported children were very clingly when their parent deployed, often reluctant to play with peers at first. They were also less able to cope with small moments of tension in play episodes and were likely to react emotionally.

Support for young children

Until recently, there was also a lack of Australian resources to assist young children understand transitions and stresses they faced within defence families. This showed a lack of understanding and acknowledgement of the sacrifices young children make within defence forces.

Just because very young children may not be able to say why they are upset, it matters to them when a parent is no longer available. Fortunately, funding has enabled free research-based resources to be created to help parents, educators and family/social workers better support young children. 

Apart from frequent relocations and parental deployment, some children can also experience a parent having service-related physical injuries, medical and mental health conditions. This has been highlighted in the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide which has also highlighted these barriers to recruitment.

Where to from here?

Effective recruitment and retention will need policy changes. To address attrition, this Recommendation Report called for policies to guarantee families with children could only be asked to relocate a maximum of 3 times from birth to 18. The report also recommended using a flexible model for deployment where parents deploy for longer but less often. In this model, training episodes can be built into the deployment to reduce transitions at home, reducing stress for children. 

This will also assist children to build strong and supportive relations with their educators, peers and community. This builds stronger, more resilient communities who have a greater capacity to support children from defence communities.

Additionally, greater awareness of modern military experiences in the community will benefit current and future families. This means better understanding for families as they access community services, including GPs and early childhood educators, who might not appreciate the challenges of deployment and frequent relocations.

Bios  

Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education and Care program at the University of New England and the lead researcher for the funded Early Childhood Defence Program project (ECDP). This team, along with their Steering Committee of stakeholders has developed research-based, free, online resources for early childhood educators, parents and family/social workers to better support young children from Australian military families. She tweets at @MargRogers11 and you can find her on LinkedIn.

Amy Johnson is a lecturer in journalism and public relations at CQ University. Her current research projects include the Early Childhood Defence Project, which develops research-based, free online resources for educators and parents to better support young children from Australian military families as well as projects which enhance veterans and family’s wellbeing. Amy has lived experience of military service as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy (Reserve) and the partner of an ADF veteran. She tweets at @AmyJohnsonPhD and you can find her on LinkedIn.