Podcast: military families

Last updated: 24 Jun 2019 Topics: Podcast Type: Podcast
Overview

Hear about our work in providing early help services for military-connected families

Having to relocate frequently, establishing a new home, being isolated from family and friends and the pressures of the deployment cycle are just some of the challenges military-connected families encounter.

In this podcast, Nicola McConnell, NSPCC Senior Evaluation Officer and Vicky Wainright, Team Manager at the NSPCC’s Service Centre in Tidworth discuss our work with military families and reflect on the key findings from our Supporting military families evaluation report.

Our experts discuss:

  • what professionals should consider when working with military families
  • safeguarding and child protection issues faced by military-connected children
  • parental resilience, social connections and emotional development
  • key findings and recommendations from our service evaluation report.


About the speakers

Nicola McConnell is a Senior Evaluation Officer within the NSPCC’s Evidence Team who has over 20 years of experience in evaluating health and social care services for children and families, including training and supporting others to undertake this work. She has researched and published a range of evaluations across different topic areas such as child protection, domestic abuse and preventing child abuse as well as recently completed an evaluation of NSPCC’s early help services to military families.

Vicky Wainwright has worked as the Team Manager at the NSPCC’s Service Centre in Tidworth for the last three years where she has supported practitioners in delivering direct services to the local community. She is a qualified social worker who has previously worked within local authority safeguarding and child protection teams and has personal experience of the military as her husband is in the RAF.


Related resources

> Read our military families evaluation report to learn more about our key findings

> Find out more about how early help/intervention services can reduce risk factors

NSPCC Learning podcast

Our podcast series covers a range of child protection issues to inform, create debate and tell you about the work that we do to keep children safe. The child's voice is at the heart of every episode and what they tell us informs all of the work that we do. 

There's a new NSPCC Learning episode every fortnight. You can subscribe to the podcast through Audioboom or sign up to CASPAR to hear when new topics are released.

Transcript

Podcast transcript 

Introduction: 
Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to hopefully inform, create debate and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child’s voice and how what they tell us informs the work we do.

Ali:
Hi and thanks for listening the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. This week, we’re talking about the work we do with military families.

The NSPCC has had a long history of providing services to two of the largest garrison towns in the UK - Catterick and Tidworth - where populations are overwhelmingly dominated by members of the armed forces and their dependents.

I sat down and spoke with Nicola McConnell and Vicky Wainwright, who both have extensive experience working with military families.

Nicola is one of our Senior Evaluation Officers and recently published a report on the services for families with a parent or carer in the armed forces and Vicky is a Team Manager at our Tidworth service centre where her team run a number of formal and informal services that cater for both military and civilian families.

We discuss some of the aspects of life that military families face such as the pressures of the deployment cycle, the challenges of a parent being posted while their partner stays behind, we talk about parental resilience, social connections and the social and emotional development of military-connected children.

Nicola also talks about the evaluation report and its focus on the needs of military families. She talks about what professionals should consider when working with military families and how effective the services are that the NSPCC has been delivering.

Nicola also talks through the key findings and recommendations, including the additional support that military families are entitled to but that aren't always apparent to either the families themselves or professionals and the need to consider support for Commonwealth families in the military. And finally, as always, we talk about the voice of the child.

Can I begin by asking you what the NSPCC’s relationship is with the military?

Nicola:
Well we’ve got two service centres, one in Catterick and one in Tidworth and they’re both… I know Catterick has been there about 20 years and I think it’s similar for Tidworth. We’ve delivered drop-in services and it’s not just to military families actually, they just happen to be located in two military garrisons but the services are open to military families and also the civilian population and Vicky, you’re probably better at describing what we currently do.

Vicky:
In Tidworth, which obviously is based within the garrison town, we’re currently offering the NSPCC services of Pregnancy in Mind which is a perinatal mental health service and that again, as Nicola said, is for parents and carers who are from military and civilian families. We don’t differentiate between who we can provide the service to.

We also offer ERIC, which is Emotional Resilience in Children course and again, that can be for children who are either military-connected or not.

The majority of the families that we work with in Tidworth are military-connected by virtue of our local demographic.

Ali:
When you say military-connected Vicky, what does that mean?

Vicky:
We kind of use that term to talk about any child or family that has a direct connection with the military. It may that the child’s father is in the army or mum is in the army or it might be that they’ve got an older sibling. So somebody whose life is impacted by having a connection to the military.

Ali:
Okay, thank you. Can we talk about why the NSPCC has sites within army garrisons?

Vicky:
I think it’s partly addressing need really. Garrisons tend to be quite remote, isolated and military families tend to move around a lot, so people living there are often away from friends and family and the normal sources of support that you might expect. So, it’s certainly addressing a need for families who might need a bit of additional support.

Ali:
Okay, so can we get a bit of an illustration about what it might be like for an army family? Do they move around quite often? Is it always UK-based? Is it sometimes overseas? What would it be like?

Vicky:
We know from some of the children that we’ve worked with in Tidworth that a lot of the children move around on a very regular basis with their families.

Tidworth itself is positioned on Salisbury Plain which is a large military area. It is now probably more frequent that families might have fewer moves because of the way the army is redeveloping itself but certainly a lot of the children that we’ve worked with in our lunch clubs, one of the topics we talk about there is about moving and how you manage those moves and they talk a lot about having, you know, several moves from different places in the UK and also Germany and Cyprus predominantly.

Ali:
Right.

Vicky:
Still, generally I think it would be fair to say a lot of the children move probably every two years which obviously has a significant impact on their lives and on their schooling and the lives of their whole family.

Ali:
And also, civilian children… so I guess civilian children will be building relationships with military-connected children, so is it quite tricky for them as well…

Vicky:
It is.

Ali:
Because built friendships over a couple of years and then…

Vicky:
It is and I think that’s something that is sometimes often forgotten by a military family, about the impact of the non-military friends and certainly we’ve got experience of children who’ve had multiple friendships that have ended because their best friend has moved because their parent has been posted away.

So that is something else that has a significant impact on schools specifically, and obviously peer relationships for children in those sorts of formative years.

Nicola:
And what Vicky’s describing is borne out from the survey that we carried out as part of the evaluation. That nearly half of the people - so it was parents completing a survey about how they felt about the service but also their experience as part of a military family - when we asked them about how often they moved, nearly half of the participants had moved in the last 12 months and nearly 60% had moved twice in the last five years.

Ali:
So, can we talk about what some of the safeguarding and child protection issues or challenges that might be faced by military-connected children?

Nicola:
First and foremost, the children will face the same issues that any child would have but there are particular factors which perhaps make the risks, not necessarily more than a civilian population, but just slightly different just because of virtue of what their parents are doing. That might be about the wellbeing of their parent whether that’s a parent who’s serving, if they’re being deployed and if that deployment has an impact on their wellbeing or whoever’s the main caregiver while the other serving parent is away.

We know just from our work with all families that the wellbeing of parents is key to the wellbeing of their children, so any factor which is going to make it more difficult for that to be a positive environment is going to affect children.

So some of the things that when we spoke to parents that they described about feeling more isolated because either they’re away from family and friends, or the sort of stresses of the deployment cycle and that’ll be stressful for the person who’s going away and leaving their family but obviously the family has to cope while that parent is away. And then also when the person returns as well, you can get to a certain way of being and coping as a single parent really and then your partner comes back and might have different ideas, so there’s areas for tension there.

I think the sort of constant moves, the isolation from family and friends and then also the additional stresses of a deployment cycle, create an environment where- and many families will cope brilliantly with all of that - but if there are underlying issues within a family and they’re having those additional pressures put on them, then I suppose we know that families under stress, the children are more likely to experience problems.

Ali:
Sure. Do you want to add to any of that Vicky?

Vicky:
I suppose one of the other things that does mitigate against some of the sort of you know, potential risks and concerns for children in military-connected families, is the stability of employment - and so financial stability is there - and also there is a housing provision which is made to families who are serving in the military albeit, as we know from the press, there’s sometimes some challenges in terms of the quality of those homes but that does put forward people with housing that is deemed to be at an appropriate size and facility for the number of children et cetera in the house.

Ali:
What are the positives? Do some of the children build up quite a good resilience because you’ve got to have a level of confidence to move schools every 18 months or two years, and so that must give a sense of being able to make friends quite easily and mixing with communities at ease? Are there some positives?

Vicky:
I think there are some huge positives in terms of children being able to develop their resilience and as long as they’re given the right support at home and school and with other agencies to enable them to do that - just to enhance that resilience that they’ve already got built in. But as Nicola said, the key element is about their parents and about the parents having that stability of their own emotional wellbeing which as we know, as she’s already said, regardless of whether you’re a military-connected family or not, if your parents haven't got that emotional regulation and stability, there will be an impact - or there is a potential for a negative impact - on the children.

And we definitely wouldn’t want to give a message that military children are more at risk. There is also a sense of pride, a sense of purpose. The children we spoke to were really proud about what their parents do and also I suppose because you’re away from where you grew up often, then you build connections within the military community where people are really supportive.

Some people might find that really oppressive, some people really enjoy that and that supportive environment and others don’t. And also, the support the military themselves provide, there’s definitely positive things about being in the military too.

Nicola:
Of course, and the military will be well-skilled in how they provide that support and that welfare because they’ll have been through it for years and years and years.

Vicky:
And I think one of the key things is and certainly Nicola’s report does highlight this, the study and the evaluation project is predominantly based around the experiences of army families.

There are some variants in families who are from the RAF or the naval services because of the way the services work differently and people are posted in different sort of formations almost. So in the army generally, people will be posted en masse and a regiment or a battalion may be posted together, or a corps, whereas with the RAF and the naval services, people might be posted more individually and so there is that you know, a limited capacity for the sense of community that Nicola’s been talking about.

Ali:
Yes, so Nicola, can we talk about the evaluation report that you’ve been working on? Can you talk us through it? What was it about? What were some of the findings?

Nicola:
Well, it was done because well we’ve been delivering these services for a long period of time and we’d never actually formally evaluated it. And then also part of the requirement of a LIBOR funding was that we should actually evaluate the effectiveness of the services and I suppose the report is split into two really.

We wanted to know more about the needs of military families, so the first part of the report is primarily based on interviews that we did with parents and also, we did a workshop in a school and we also spoke to our teams and other services or other professionals who work with military families, just to get a sense of what are the particular needs, what the professionals need to consider when they’re working military families. The second part of the report was really looking at, well we’re delivering these services, are they actually effective, are they making a difference?

The evaluation had two phases. We were very mindful that most of the services that we deliver to military families, they choose to attend. People are choosing to use the service and they’re very early intervention.

Most of the families, there aren't any child protection issues but because we know that at certain points in a family’s life they may be more increased risk, then there’s support there to intervene at a really early stage and people can access support when they need to. But when you work with families in that situation, then you have to be very consultative about how you carry out an evaluation. You can’t just get them to fill in loads of questionnaires that we might do with some of the other ways we assess families. So the first part of the evaluation was focus groups and part of the purpose of that was to consult with the families about how we would actually look at how effective the services were and we ended up doing a survey but we’d made sure that we’d already spoken to the parents about that and found out how they felt about that before we did that.

And then the survey tools that we used were based on something that the services actually used to plan those services, so the Centre for Social Policy, which is based in the US, has a strengthening families’ framework and that gives us structure and framework for how you deliver a service and think about how you can improve things for families, but it also has a questionnaire developed to measure what’s going on there too.

Ali:
Okay.

Nicola:
So we were measuring parental resilience, social connections for knowledge of parenting and child development and then what support they have - and it’s described as concrete support - so who does a family turn to when there is a crisis? And then the final element is looking at the social and emotional development of children.

The questionnaire included questions around those issues and then we also asked questions about, well demographic information so we could see the age of the children, how many children, were they civilian or military?

The questionnaire also included questions which were in a survey that the MOD run regularly within all branches of the military and that includes wellbeing questions from the ONS - the Office for National Statistics - questions on wellbeing. And the reason why we used those was to compare the results that we were finding for our population with the wider military population and also the general population.

So a key finding from the wellbeing questions was that actually, happiness and life satisfaction, they were reporting higher scores than the general population. That anxiety was much higher amongst the parents who were the military parents within our population which kind of makes sense. We’d already identified that this was a group of people who need support and the figures seem to bear it out that actually, there are higher levels of anxiety and so therefore, the services that we are providing will hopefully help to alleviate that.

Ali:
And is that anxiety higher because of what we spoke about earlier, the deployment of one parent, the other parent being in effect a single parent while the parent’s away? Are they the reasons or did it not go into that detail?

Nicola:
I think from the interviews that those sorts of issues were the things that people were describing so it seems to make sense and people talked about, if you’re moving for deployment reasons, most people might not move if they’re heavily pregnant but you might have to if your partner’s been deployed, so you can suddenly have issues. People were describing those sorts of issues, and just being on your own all day with a child and having no one to perhaps give you a break for a while because you’re not near your family, no one’s going to come home from work and take over, so it, you know it’s a situation which anxiety…

Ali:
Can be really pressurised, yeah.

Nicola:
Yeah, definitely.

Vicky:
Both Tidworth and Catterick are in relatively remote areas and also, Tidworth’s quite a big town now and so the distance for anybody to visit the centre of the town or to go to different places, well if they’re new, if they’ve got young children in pushchairs, they could very easily become socially isolated.

Ali:
Yeah, just the practicalities and logistics: if you have got say three children and you’re on your own, one in a pushchair, that’s going to be…

Vicky:
Tricky.

And in Tidworth, there’s a big Tesco’s and you can go and do your shopping there but if you have got three children in tow and you haven't got a car, then actually doing that in itself would be anxiety provoking.

Ali:
Yeah, absolutely.

Nicola:
And I think that thing about social connections we found, the second element of the evaluation was to compare parents who’d been attending for a while with those who had only just started attending the service and then those who were new, we also followed them up a few months later.

That was quite a small sample in the end but we found those who’d been attending for a while tended to develop social connections, just through attending the groups and making more friends and finding out about more things they could do. And just those things about if your child’s doing something that you’re not used to, or you’re worried about, then just having more connections with other parents, you can see what’s happening or you could talk about it and so things that might bother you if you haven't got anyone to talk about that particular issue with at that time, you know that’s going to seem bigger than what it needs to be.

Ali:
Of course, yeah.

Vicky:
And that’s one of the key differences between the two, the informal groups that are offered in Tidworth and also Catterick, is that children’s services’ practitioners were involved in each group so unlike perhaps other offers that are available in the local area which might be more of a stay and play nature, there was always a member of staff in the room supporting the activities but also being that point of professional contact on a very informal basis, so somebody could air their concern very quickly and get some sound advice that was consistent with the messages from health visitors or the NHS or their midwife.

Ali:
What recommendations were there in the evaluation report and are any of those being acted on?

Nicola:
I think one of them is to ensure that there’s more knowledge about the needs of military families and a key thing is that they’re actually entitled to additional support but a lot of professionals are not aware of it. So, I was talking to the research team at the King’s Centre for Military Health Research last week and we were discussing about how one of the findings of our report was that families sometimes find it difficult to access specialist health services for their children because their child might be on a waiting list for something that they’ve been referred for but they’ll move before they ever get to the top of the list.

So children that should have been seen within a few months, it can take years because of the regular moves. But actually the army covenant which is the Government’s or society’s commitment to the people who agree to serve for their country, is that they should not be disadvantaged in any way, neither them or their families. So those children should be prioritised and put to the top of a list and they should also be prioritised in giving access to schools but a lot of professionals are not aware of that.

Ali:
Right.

Nicola:
And that’s something the team at King’s were saying was that it would be good if we could sort of promote that as a message.

Ali:
Some awareness raising, yeah.

Nicola:
Yeah. For the findings for the evaluation, I suppose because we identified that anxiety was a key issue with these families, the teams should think about how else they could support families where the parent has high levels of anxiety. Also, we found that populations, particularly those members of the military who come from Commonwealth countries, are often more isolated than say the military who were born in the UK. Not only are they perhaps miles away from… you might have someone who’s from Scotland but is posted in Tidworth… but if your family is hundreds of miles away or in a different a country then that isolation is more exacerbated.

When we looked at the question about social connections, those parents [who come from Commonwealth countries] tended to report lower levels of social connection than those who recorded themselves as white British… so I suppose that was a recommendation that we should look to see how we could sort of further support those families or recommend that anyway.

Ali:
Could we talk a little bit about maybe how some of the services that the NSPCC has provided have helped military families? Have we got any feedback or evidence about that?

Nicola:
I suppose for the evaluation there was two things that sort of demonstrated that the services make a difference.

There was, I mentioned earlier, the questionnaire that was looking at the resilience, connections, knowledge of parenting and confidence in parenting and being able to access support and certainly for the military families, we could see a change on most of those factors.

Vicky:
In terms of, I’m talking about Pregnancy in Mind which is one of the NSPCC services that we’ve been running in Tidworth since 2015, we’ve had a lot of parents who are from the military, army families, because of where we are in Tidworth and we’ve had some really positive feedback from parents who have come and accessed that NSPCC specific service.

They’ve self-reported reductions in their feelings of anxiety and depression. They would only be accepted to the service if they were experiencing low level or moderate at the point of baseline and that’s been really, you know we’ve had some really positive feedback about that, but what’s also very interesting is a lot of the families who’ve come and been supported by the Pregnancy in Mind service have gone on to attend our informal groups which were part of the evaluation study. And so, we’ve sort of demonstrated there that by having a direct service and support, people have had an increased confidence and self-esteem to then access a more informal group setting and they’ve then gone on, made friends, social connections within those groups and gone on to perhaps to a stay and play within the local community.

We’ve been able to see sort of a progression of people’s confidence and that’s had a positive impact obviously on their capacity to parent and meet the needs of their children and in terms of the direct services that we offer to the children, in Tidworth we run the military lunch clubs.

Again, part of which was included within the evaluation report and we’ve been doing that for a number of years now and we’ve adapted and changed the model slightly to support the growing numbers of children in the school because certainly Tidworth is currently seeing a huge influx of army families with the re-basing from Germany, and so we now offer four different lunch clubs across the week. They’re Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 groups - two for each age group - and we frequently receive positive feedback, not only from the children but also from the school where they recognise the support that we are providing in addition to the support that they’re already providing to those children and again, that’s an informal group offer.

So the children come because they want to and we regularly see, you know at least one, where we’d have to limit the numbers but 12 in the younger age group, we’re full to capacity most weeks.

Nicola:
One of the ways that we wanted to ensure that the child’s voice was included in the evaluation was to talk to children directly, so we spoke to the children during their lunch club.

They were very kind to give up their lunch club to do more evaluation exercises and we were quite conscious that it’s meant to be a fun activity so we didn’t run a focus group because it didn’t seem appropriate to use up their lunch club and not do something that was fun, so we did three activities with them.

The first one, we had cards which had different emotions and feelings and there were several versions of each of these cards, so the children could look at the different emotions and think about how they felt when they were at the lunch club and then pick one of those up and post it in a box.

They didn’t actually have to talk to the other children about how they felt about it or to the workers. They could just look at all these different options and then pick cards that represented how they felt or if none of the cards represented how they felt, they could write something on a blank card and post that as well.

Another thing we did was to put on a wall chart, all the different themes and topics that the lunch club had covered in previous week. And children don’t necessarily attend every week, so it was just the views of the children who were there on that day but we gave them different coloured stickers which were a different colour, according to their gender and also their age and then they would say whether they enjoyed a session or found it interesting or a kind of a bit in the middle or actually they didn’t find it particularly interesting. And then they would put the sticker according to what they thought about each session and that told us which sessions children of different ages were more interested in and the one that they were all interested in was about managing their feelings and emotions and also how, I think, friendships were really, that’s probably because they were moving schools so often.

That was a session that seemed to resonate with them whereas a session on the NSPCC’s PANTS campaign, you could see the younger children were interested in that but the older ones, it was probably not something that was as interesting to them. Then the final activity, we didn’t want them to have to necessarily talk about themselves, so we got them to describe an imaginary child who attended a lunch club and in fact, it was a worker’s idea but the children loved it.

I was going to get them to draw a picture but actually we got large rolls of paper and they were lying on the floor drawing round each other…

Ali:
Brilliant, yeah, great.

Nicola:
Creating a name for the child, what they were interested in, why they might want to come to the lunch club and then also, what things they might want to talk about. That got the children talking about things that they might be concerned about but in a way which didn’t have to talk about their actual issues themselves. The themes about moving schools, friendships, that came out through that exercise without actually saying, “well how do you feel?”.

But I think the parents also talked about how their lifestyle affects different ages of children as well and they were talking about how young children, I suppose, if you go through the different sort of stages of a child’s development, babies… you wouldn’t necessarily be telling them that Dad’s going away for a few months… they’re obviously going to miss their presence…

Ali:
Of course.

Nicola:
And then, obviously, for both the parent and child, those months, there’s going to be such different changes in a child’s development and it must be very hard for the parent to miss out on that. But then with toddlers, mums were describing how children would be looking for their parent or confused about why they weren't there anymore whereas with older children, the issues are quite different.

It might be about having to take additional responsibilities within the family because one of the parents are absent or missing areas of the curriculum because they keep moving schools. So they might cover the same topic twice or miss out. There were lots of different themes coming through from the interviews with parents too.

Ali:
Vicky, Nicola, thank you very much for talking to me about how we work with military families.

Vicky:
Thank you.

Nicola:
Thank you.

(Outro)

"Thank you for listening to this NSPCC Learning podcast. If you're looking for more safeguarding and child protection training, information or resources, please visit our website for professionals at nspcc.org.uk/learning."