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Mother and son in forest having fun

Nearly 2 million children and youth are military-connected; the largest group under 5 years of age, and it’s estimated that 20 percent or more have special needs (NIH & HSC Foundation, 2014). Understanding these families who have children with Special Healthcare Needs (CSHCN) can impact both formal and informal network support.

Formal and informal networks can contribute to caregiver resiliency among mothers with CSHCN. Formal network supports are intentionally systems that include expert providers such as human service agencies.

Like civilian caregivers, military caregivers rely most on informal network supports such as fellow unit members, spouses, neighbors, and family. Formal network supports for caregivers with CSHCN include early intervention programs, the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP), TRICARE, and family readiness programs and support from military leaders.

Effects of having CSHCN include: parenting stress, marital distress, and increased rates of divorce. Caregivers with CSHCN are more likely to experience hardships, even if income, education, and family structure are controlled. Like many caregivers, mothers of CSHCN are more likely to stop or reduce work. However, in a recent study from the Journal of Applied Family Studies found mothers with CSHCN experience significantly less formal and informal network support than their counterparts. More informal and formal network support was generally associated with higher resilience.

Highlighting family assets and coping resources is a critical aspect of intervention programs for children with disabilities. Parents of children with disabilities oftentimes seek social support, although their social supports are relatively smaller and offer less support than families with developing children.

Social supports may offset some economic and psychological costs that caregiver’s experience. It’s important that we strengthen our communities, making opportunities for children with disabilities to participate fully within the community.  We can distinguish between informal and formal networks using the social organization theory of community action and change, which can generate social capital and promote family resiliency.


Our goal then is spouse/caregiver resiliency – the extent to which spouses know and use their individual and community resources, experience a meaningful connection to the service branch, and meet the challenges of military life. (Bowen & Martin, 2011).


Farrell, A., , Bowen, G., & Swick, D. (2014). Network Supports Resiliency among U.S. Military Spouses with Children with Special Health Care Needs. Journal of Applied Family Studies , 63, 55-70.

This MFLN-Military Caregiving concentration blog post was published on September 02, 2016.