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HPRC Fitness Arena: Family & Relationships
One key resilience-building skill for military families is to create meaning from experiences. And as a family, you can share your understanding of challenging experiences or situations by having each family member explain his or her experience and perspective of a particular event. The event can be a specific situation or a period of time, such as the time when a family member was deployed. Together, your family can create a “picture” of the experience. Be creative! This can be with talk or with art or both.
Parents and other caregivers are essential to help children make sense of upsetting and/or challenging experiences. In addition, spouses can feel distant from each other due to their differing experiences, so creating a shared understanding can help bridge the divide. The process of creating a common understanding of a challenging event can help family members bond, understand the past better, and look to the future with more hope.
This is one of the resilience-building skills taught in the Families Overcoming Under Stress (FOCUS) program. To learn more about FOCUS (and their online resources) check out FOCUS World.
Having a resilient family isn’t something that just happens—it takes some effort. You can develop and improve your family’s resiliency by honing the skills you already have and developing new ones as needed. To give you a jump start, try doing 30 days of activities that will improve your relationships. The Families Overcoming Under Stress (FOCUS) resiliency program created a calendar of events you can do with your children that covers an entire month. Each activity teaches a skill that will strengthen your family over time. They highlight activities such as family fun nights and family meetings and teach skills such as deep breathing, goal setting, communication, and self-care. They also have many activities specifically for military families and children.
To learn other family-strengthening skills and activities, check out HPRC’s Rock Solid Families section.
- Stop what you are doing
- Take a few deep breaths and focus on the experience of breathing
- Observe your thoughts, feelings, and actions
- Proceed with new awareness
Like Warfighters, judges make very important decisions that affect peoples’ lives, but judges also are not immune to impacts of stress. Like everyone else under stress, they can thoughtlessly make quick decisions based on “rules of thumb,” but because we are human biases creep in, sometimes leading to bad decisions.
So, the STOP technique can be important too for Warfighters, spouses, parents, or anyone else looking to make good decisions when it matters. STOP-ping allows you to monitor and adjust your current stress in order to make good decisions.
Think of stress as a balance scale. All the situations you find stressful are heaped up on one side. How you deal with them is on the other side. The trick is learning to balance the two sides (or even better, having your coping resources outweigh the causes of your stress).
Everyone feels overloaded at times, when stress seems too much to handle. This can be compounded with multiple family demands—from finances, children’s needs, managing work and family demands, and fostering your relationships. Here are two suggestions to help you find balance:
- Find out what practical needs are causing your stress and come up with possible ways to address them using HPRC's problem-solving tips. For example, you know that you need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, but you and your partner seem to manage only five hours or so. So discuss possible solutions with your partner. For example, set a bedtime and stick to it no matter what chores aren’t done; put the kids to bed at an earlier time; create a wind-down routine 30 minutes before bedtime in order to get that eight hours—and stick to it! Then pick one of these possible solutions, try it out for a week, and then re-assess. If it doesn’t work, pick another; or if it does work, maybe tweak it a little to make it even better.
- Once you have plans to deal with the sources of your stress, then you can focus on managing your stressful feelings. There’s no need to continue feeling stressed out while you put your plan into action. Try some of the “behavioral strategies” in HPRC’s Managing Emotions that you can do anywhere with minimum fuss, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or other relaxation strategies. You can even teach them your children and do them together as a family. Learn how in “Calming & Grounding Activities” from the FOCUS Family Resiliency Training Manual, which describes several shared activities.
And check out HPRC’s Mind-Body Skills section for resources that are geared more for you as an individual.
The American Psychological Association (APA) wants to know how stressed out Americans are. Every year since 2007, they’ve conducted a yearly “Stress in America” survey in which they analyze trends about stress and its associated symptoms and behaviors across a range of people living in the U.S. In August 2013, they focused on 1,018 teens (ages 13-17).
A recent report of this information about teens and stress showed that the stats are staggering. Teens from the general population (civilian and military) exceed healthy levels of stress, mirroring the trends in the U.S. among adults. Stress affects sleep, exercise, and eating. Teens tend to get 7.4 hours of sleep on school nights, while the recommended amount is around nine or more hours according to the National Sleep Foundation, and between nine and 10 hours according to the National Institutes of Health. One in five teens exercises less than once a week or not at all. And 23% of teens report that they’ve skipped at least one meal in the past month due to stress.
Parents’ deployments are extremely challenging for children and teens, so military teens often have to deal with additional stressors. Consider this:
- When a parent deploys for 19 months or more, kids’ achievement scores are lower than peers’ scores.
- Teachers and counselors say that parental deployment can cause stress at home, often leading to more problems at school (such as incomplete homework, skipping school, or a less-engaged parent).
- Kids’ resiliency can be impacted when a parent is away, and parents/teachers/counselors sometimes feel that helpful resources can be hard to navigate.
What can you and your teens do to combat their stress?
- Watch for signs of stress, and actively use stress-management techniques. You can also find children-centered techniques in these HPRC resources. Recognize that stress-management skills are important to develop whether you are a Warfighter, family member, or civilian.
- Military parents can alert teachers and counselors when a parent is deployed and enlist whatever support is available.
- Parents’ well-being impacts their teens’ well-being. Be sure to take care of yourself by eating right (individually or with your family), exercising, and managing your own stress.
- Bolster resiliency skills, both in times of stress and in times of calm. You can learn how with practical tips in "Building Family Resilience."
A lot of money-saving challenges have been sprouting up all over the web. These savings challenges may seem like one-size-fits-all easy-savings plans, but can they really help Warfighters save money?
As for most for financial questions, the answer is “it depends.” For some, using one of these challenges can be a fun, easy way to set aside additional savings, but for others it could be a futile attempt ending in frustration. Problems arise when the lofty savings goals touted by such plans just don’t fit your lifestyle.
So what then? Should you give up and do nothing? No! Have a savings goal, but make sure it’s one tailored to your own financial abilities. Start with an understanding of what you can save, and be realistic about your savings goals and how they can fit into your life. If $200 a month is too much, then don’t aim to save $2400 by the end of the year.
If you decide you can save $1400 a year, that averages out to be $26.50 per week, or about the cost of two pizzas. Maybe you can save more some weeks than others. If so, then just keep track of what you’ve saved. As long as you average about $115 per month, you can reach your goal of $1400 by the end of the year. If you start to see that your goal was too ambitious, don’t be afraid to adjust it instead of being disappointed at the end of the year or, worse, giving up.
For more information, visit Military OneSource’s “How to Save” web page.
Deployment can be a challenge for couples, but it can also be a time of potential growth for a relationship. Questions invariably arise such as, “How much should I share with my partner? How often can we talk?” Some couples easily develop a dynamic that works for them; for others, the feeling of closeness is hard to hold on to when one partner is far away. Whether it’s your first deployment or you’re a seasoned veteran, here are some tips you can add to your deployment arsenal:
- Balance talk of "everyday" things with more-intimate conversations about deeper feelings and meaning.
- When there’s a lull in communication, whether it’s a day or a few weeks (due to mission requirements), think about creative ways to stay feeling connected such as journaling, burning video-diary messages on a DVD, or writing cards or letters.
- Communicate marriage-related emotions that come up during deployment; don’t put them off for later.
- If you’ve been through deployments before, think and talk about what worked for each of you and what you would like to do next time. Sometimes couples want the same things, but more often each person has different or even opposing wants. When this happens, it’s a good time to practice problem solving to find compromises that address each person’s desires as much as possible.
- Take good care of yourself and use your favorite stress-management techniques. Stress can increase the likelihood of getting into fights with your loved ones!
- Finally, don’t forget to weave appreciation for your partner into your conversations; read "Thankful for you?" to learn why appreciation is important for couples.
But most important: Figure out what works best for you. For more ideas on strengthening relationships check out HPRC’s Relationship Enhancement section.
More than likely you’ve learned some great and helpful relationship skills through the years to keep your relationships strong. It can often be helpful to add some more to your tool belt to keep things going well (or to get them back on track). Check out HPRC’s “Keeping Strong Family Relationships for Military Life” for some strategies.
The wounds of war also affect the family members of injured or ill Warfighters. The job of caregiving often falls to a family member, and while it can be a rewarding job, it can also be stressful. Taking time for yourself is important. You run the risk of burnout when your attention is directed solely towards others without time to recharge. Below are tips to help you find balance in taking care of both your loved one and yourself.
- View caregiving as if it were a team sport, not a solo one. Get other people to share the responsibilities.
- Encourage independence by supporting your loved one to do as much as possible for him/herself.
- Take a pro-active and positive perspective.
- Have a take-charge attitude for problems, and then reframe those problems into challenges.
- Avoid tunnel vision; find a balance between taking care of your injured loved one and taking care of yourself and others in the family.
- Create a care plan for yourself that includes fun time, down time, and relaxation methods. For some ideas, check out the Mind-Body Skills section of HPRC’s website.
- Seek professional help when needed.
For more information, read this handout on “Coping with Caregiver Challenges,“ which addresses common caregiver challenges such as stress and symptoms such as headaches and then suggests ideas for coping. Other strategies include keeping yourself healthy with exercise, rest, and eating well. For more ideas, check out the Traumatic Brain Injury website’s “Stress Busters” section. Building your stress-management skills can be a big help. Finally, assess yourself regularly to check on your well-being (to prevent burnout) can also be helpful. You can find assessments for caregiver stress at Afterdeployment.org (online) and Traumatic Brain Injury (for download).
How we interpret events or interactions has a big impact on how we react to them. We all fall victim to “thinking traps” from time to time, and HPRC’s recent article identifies common traps and suggests strategies for dealing with them. Your personal relationships are particularly prone to thinking traps that can lead you to draw false conclusions. For example, let’s say you’ve been married for some time now and recently find yourself thinking your partner doesn’t love you any more because she/he no longer says so.
One way to address this kind of thinking trap is to ask yourself—or have a friend ask you—questions that make you think about the reasoning or evidence behind what you’re thinking. Some examples are:
- What specifically makes you think that he/she doesn’t love you any more?
- What did he/she do in the past that made you feel loved?
- Are there any other possible explanations that might explain your partner’s behavior, such as job stress, an ailing parent, children acting out, or recent return from deployment?
- When you think back to the beginning of your relationship, how could you tell he/she loved you? Was it something (s)he said? Or what (s)he did?
- Has your behavior toward him/her changed recently?
Such questions can get you to start thinking logically by taking a close look at what’s behind what you’re thinking—the real evidence and surroundings of the situation. Sometimes it can help you gain perspective to write down the answers to these questions. Once you’ve gone through this self-questioning process, it’s possible you’ll find a different interpretation of your partner’s behavior. Maybe you were just caught up in a thinking trap.
For more ideas on strengthening your relationship, check out HPRC’s Relationship Enhancement section. And for specific strategies on changing your relationship dynamic, check out HPRC’s Performance Strategy on Couples Communication.