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HPRC Fitness Arena: Family & Relationships
When my own husband returned from deployment, I was thrilled but anxious as I stood on the airstrip waiting for his helicopter to arrive. I thought about all of the birthdays, holidays, and special events he had missed during his time away. I wondered what it would be like to share a home with him again after I had become so independent.
This is an experience felt at some point by most military families, and it has a name: “boundary ambiguity.” Boundary ambiguity can affect military families in two ways: ambiguous absence (during deployment) and ambiguous presence (post-deployment).
When one member of the family is deployed, the rest of the family knows that their service member is absent physically but senses psychologically that he or she is present. The family continues to focus on its service member by seeking information about his or her location and well-being. When deployment information turns out to be uncertain, feelings of hopelessness, confusion, and at times resentment may increase among family members.
As with most families, flexibility is important for military family success and happiness. When the service member leaves for deployment, the usual roles and responsibilities he or she once filled now have to be filled by the other family members. This can cause additional uncertainty because, although they still consider their loved one is a viable family member, the other spouse must take over decision-making responsibilities that affect the family unit. The spouse at home can also feel a loss of emotional support, which heightens the stress load he or she is carrying.
Additionally, once the service member has returned from deployment, the rest of the family knows that he or she is physically present yet still perceives psychologically that he or she is absent.
The reunion, although joyful, may bring about the added and unanticipated stresses of trying to get back to the family’s pre-deployment lives or adjust to new roles. Role confusion may increase if the family is not comfortable communicating with each other regarding each person's roles, responsibilities, and needs. And at the same time, the returned service member may feel disconnected and may not know how to re-engage without interfering with the family’s new roles.
Researchers of military reserve families in wartime interviewed 16 reservists and 18 family members (spouse, significant other, or parent) upon the reservists’ return from deployment, and they found that all family members experienced boundary ambiguity. Family members sought to cope with these feelings during deployment by:
- Continuing to seek additional information from the media, even though too much information sometimes caused additional stress; and
- Attending a military-sponsored Family Support Group (FSG) for family members of reservists, which provided emotional support.
When reunited after deployment, family members and reservists adjusted over time. Once the reservist went back to civilian employment, the family’s routines became “normalized” and roles were established. In addition, open communication about issues such as reestablishing previous tasks or assigning new ones helped to stabilize the family unit.
Once home, my husband wanted to resume certain family roles immediately, while I was hesitant to give up my new capabilities so quickly. Fortunately, after reestablishing open discussions over the next several weeks, we began to speak honestly about our preferences. Once we opened up clear lines of communication and listened to each other, our stress levels diminished. We made some compromises and were able to establish an even better household environment than we had pre-deployment.
So be flexible, take advantage of available counseling and support resources, and be patient with your spouse when reestablishing your family roles. After all, there aren’t many things more important than the happiness of your family.
Follow these tips to help your child cope with a parent’s deployment:
1) Increase your knowledge/awareness of deployment-related issues.
- Understand the various ways in which a family is affected by deployment.
- Understand the stages of the deployment cycle.
- Find ways to improve public awareness of the need for support within communities.
2) Increase your knowledge of and vigilance for depression and stress symptoms:
- Learn to recognize signs and symptoms of depression and other mental health concerns.
- Understand common emotional phases in children and teenagers during times of deployment.
3) Increase opportunities for connection and support:
- Show concern for your child. Many teens will refuse to express their concern over a deployment but will often respond to concern shown for them.
- Help kids form networks with peers who have gone through or are going through a parent’s deployment.
- Provide opportunities for activities to keep children distracted.
For more information and resources on how to support children and teens during deployment, visit the HPRC’s family skills section.
During times of deployment, children and teenagers often look for support from the people in their lives—family, teachers, and friends—to help them deal with the stress of having a parent deployed. A good support system helps by listening, understanding, and providing comfort. Children often will respond to those who show concern for them and to those who understand life in the military. Provide support by listening to what your child has to say and by helping them understand their situation.
With the rise of obesity among children, restaurants are stepping up to help combat the issue by offering healthier menu items for children. Focusing more on fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy items, the new initiative “Kids LiveWell” is working with restaurants to offer meals that are lower in unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium. Read more about this initiative at Kids LiveWell.
RAND Corporation recently published a report that evaluates studies and programs that promote resilience in the military. The findings by RAND’s military health research group include practices that promote resilience in military families. Below are a few points that can help your family to build resilience together.
- Emotional ties. Bonding time helps family members become closer to one another emotionally. Shared recreation and leisure time could help tighten family bonds.
- Communication. The ability of family members to exchange thoughts, opinions, and information is an essential step in solving problems and helping relationships thrive.
- Support. Knowing that comfort and support are readily available within a family allows members to lean on each other during good and bad times.
- Adaptability. Families that adapt to the changes inherent in military life are more likely to weather challenges together. Allowing some flexibility in family roles may help smooth transitions.
You can download a summary or the full report of “Promoting Psychological Resilience in the U.S. Military” from RAND’s website. RAND’s research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. For even more information on family resilience-building skills, visit HPRC's Family Skills section.
Being in combat is physically, emotionally, and mentally stressful. Part of the body's natural stress response is to remain on high alert in order to have a better chance of staying alive. This can lower your tolerance for relationship disagreements and can cause irritability and conflict. The following are some tips to help you overcome the effects of combat on your interactions with loved ones:
- Practice emotion management strategies prior to and after communicating with your loved ones to help you calm down first.
- If you are upset, wait to communicate with your loved ones rather than writing or saying something in the heat of the moment.
- Describe your feelings and thoughts starting with "I.” I-statements are more personal and reduce feelings of blame.
- Focus on the communication interaction between you and your partner, not just on the way that one or the other of you communicates.
- Compliment each other!
The amount of sleep a person gets prior to the age of 11 has been associated with adult body weight. A 2008 study in the Journal of Pediatrics of 1037 individuals found that shorter sleep times at age 5, 7, 9, and 11 were associated with higher Body Mass Index (BMI) at age 32. This relationship does not depend on BMI as a child, socioeconomic status, TV watching, adult physical activity and smoking, and BMI of a person’s parents.
The USDA announced on June 2, 2011, that its classic food guide Pyramid is being replaced with the easy-to-understand and interactive MyPlate. Using a “familiar mealtime visual,” MyPlate is intended to remind Americans about balancing meals with the five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. Based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, notable changes to the new guide are the inclusion of more fruits and vegetables, less grains, and the re-categorization of oils as providing “essential nutrients” but not appearing on the plate.
The result is a simple visual graphic of a balanced meal that families can use as a tool to make sure the portions of the major food groups are covered in meals. The simplicity of the graphic helps ALL family members, especially children, become more engaged in what and how much they should be eating. An interactive plate on the MyPlate website allows users to click on each section of the plate, which then displays a page for the selected food group with description, key message, and a list with pictures of single-serving sizes of some common foods in that group. These changes allow families to easily identify what a healthy, balanced meal looks like. Also featured is an Interactive Tools section that enables users to develop personalized plans and learn about specific healthy food choices. When all family members know the basics of healthy eating, mealtime can truly be a shared event.
MyPlate can also encourage family discussions about healthy foods, which can help develop good eating habits by all members of a family. For example, you can find out if there are any particular foods that family members like or dislike, and then find and offer alternatives in the specific food group of a disliked item. This will help eliminate the likelihood that someone will skip the essential healthy components of a meal. Get everyone excited and involved during mealtime! Fun meals shared as a family can promote healthy eating habits for children that they can carry into adulthood and can reinforce family bonding.
Keep in mind that MyPlate isn’t designed as strict rule to be followed—it’s perfectly fine to have dairy products directly on the plate instead of in a cup. Desserts, which are currently placed in the “Empty Calories” section, are okay when consumed in moderation in appropriate portions. You may still have to seek out other sources for how to prepare foods in healthy ways and to determine for the nutrition content of many food items. The information on MyPlate should be used as a tool to build a foundation of knowledge about food choices and help set healthy eating goals for your family. Families should take this change as an opportunity to get the entire family involved in healthy eating.
Several weeks ago we started a series on strategies for processing emotions. We have described four "savoring" strategies and four "dampening" strategies. Using more of the savoring strategies and fewer of the dampening strategies can help positive feelings linger from positive experiences. But you must also make sure you use strategies that match your personality and lifestyle. In this research study, those who used multiple savoring strategies (and avoided more of the dampening strategies) were the happiest. The authors also suggest staying in the moment when something positive happens to you and once the moment has passed, stepping back and savoring the experience. Take a moment now to review the tips from weeks one, two, three, and four.
Since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, approximately two million U.S. troops have deployed. The operational tempo associated with these conflicts has led to longer and more frequent deployments with fewer rest periods in between. The inevitable stress is a challenge for military and civilian communities, even as families work hard to reintegrate their families and normal routines.
In response to these ongoing demands, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed the development of the Total Force Fitness (TFF) initiative, a new Department of Defense model that focuses on the health, readiness, and performance of our Warfighters. (See the Total Force Fitness section of HPRC’s website for more information on this initiative.)
Following this initiative, a team of Joint-Service and DoD experts lead by COL Bowles of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) came together to create a model that promotes family fitness, resilience, and optimal well-being for service members and their families. This model, which is still in development, is called The Military Family Fitness Model (MFFM).
The MFFM first examines stress-inducing demands placed on military and civilian families from sudden deployment and the return home. Then, looking to build on the resilience of the family, MFFM provides guidelines, skills, and resources for the individual, family, and community to protect against the negative effects of stress. As sources of stress increase, certain behaviors indicate the need for more support (e.g., family strife, children acting out, job instability for non-service members, family role conflict, non-supportive relationships outside the family, and/or domestic violence). With MFFM, families have individual, family, and community resources for additional support. The aim of the model is to foster a multi-level approach that strengthens family resilience and, as a result, Warfighter resilience.
Individual approaches to addressing stress include breathing exercises, yoga, mindfulness exercises, and cognitive restructuring. Family strategies include developing and maintaining strong communication skills, shared family routines, and the building of support networks. The bottom line of the MFFM is that at any point along the model, individuals, families, and communities can strengthen resilience resources to promote total family resilience and fitness.
Members of the MFFM team presented the Military Family Fitness Model at the USDA/DoD Family Resilience conference at the end of April. We encourage you to get more information on the conference presentation, read the abstract, and see the PowerPoint slides presented.