Seeking truth about military teen resilience

Seeking truth about military teen resilience

by Lisa Smith Molinari
The Meat and Potatoes of Life

“Military children are resilient!”

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. But as a Navy wife and mother of three, I’ve often wondered, were our kids truly resilient or was this just wishful thinking? Is there any proof of this alleged resilience? Is it possible that the frequent moves, deployments and unpredictability they experienced as adolescents negatively affected their mental well-being? Were they able to build personal foundations during their teen years that are strong enough to handle life’s stresses as adults?

When I had parenting questions over the years, I often turned to experts for advice. Before Google, I’d order books about best parenting practices, and in later years, I’d hit the internet to find studies, surveys, research papers and other information, especially during the teen years.

So, what do the experts say about whether military teens are resilient or not? Considering that there have been military children in the United States dating back to 1775 when the Second Continental Congress founded the Army to protect the 13 colonies, of course there must be lots of research about military adolescents’ resiliency, right?

Wrong. Apparently, two and a half centuries is not enough time to figure out whether military life helps or hurts our children.

In a 2013 paper titled “Resilience among Military Youth,” scientists dug up all the historical analysis on military children and realized, “the research is so thin, it’s hard to reach strong conclusions about which programs and policies would best help military-connected children thrive. Indeed, any inferences drawn must be taken with a grain of salt …”

In a genuine effort to provide useful information, Blue Star Families (BSF) questioned parents about their older children’s happiness in their annual Military Lifestyle Surveys. The 2021 Survey report had good news: 59 percent of parents rated their adolescents as having either “good” or “excellent” mental-well being, averaging nearly 4.0 on a scale of 1.0 (Poor) to 5.0 (Excellent).

But wait just a minute. Not so fast.

While BSF was talking to the parents, the National Military Family Association (NMFA) went straight to the horse’s mouth and questioned the teens themselves, with alarming results. In NMFA’s 2021 and 2022 Military Teen Experience Surveys, more than 90 percent of adolescents scored as having “at risk” mental well-being in low to moderate ranges on the Warwick-Edinburg Mental Well-Being Scale (WEMWBS). Twenty-eight percent of respondents reported having low mental well-being and behavior that was indicative of depression. They “generally had difficulty thinking clearly and making up their mind. They also rarely felt optimistic, did not often feel relaxed, and felt disconnected from others …” Worse yet, too many of the teens reported thoughts of harming themselves and others.

Good grief! The results of the BSF and NMFA surveys couldn’t be more different. Will we ever know whether our military kids are the resilient children everyone says they are?

Apparently we will. This fall, a landmark study will finally attempt to unravel the mystery of military teen resiliency. As part of the DoD-funded Millennial Cohort Study -- the largest population-based prospective health study in US military history with more than 200,000 participants -- health researchers will soon begin “SOAR,” the Study of Adolescent Resilience. They plan to reach out to 50,000 of the military study participants who have children between the ages of 11 and 17 to find out how military life experiences like moves and deployments affect adolescents’ psychosocial adjustment, physical health, academic achievement and educational goals and career aspirations.

This study is being done primarily because reliable research on military teens is lacking. “There is virtually no information on adolescents in these understudied groups,” stated Hope McMaster, the study’s principal investigator, in a recent interview with Military Times. By using a large study sample and following up with participants in 18-month intervals for many years, SOARS will avoid the discrepancies in previous research studies on military adolescents. The study is so lengthy, it won’t be completed until 2068.

We won’t get any quick answers to our questions, but it’s comforting for all current and future military parents to know, the truth about our children is finally on the horizon.


Read more at the website, and in Lisa’s book, The Meat and Potatoes of Life: My True Lit Com. Email:

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