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Filed under: Deployment

Tips for parents to help children and teens with deployment: Week 1

Try talking to your child or teen about their deployment experiences for optimal family performance over the long run.

Many children and teenagers born and raised in military families learn to adapt to their parent’s deployment and return and become more resilient as a result. However, no family is immune to stress. Learning what strategies work best for your family—and each family member—is important for optimal performance over the long run.

Over the next five weeks, HPRC will suggest some practical strategies that you can use as a parent to help your children and teens to cope with deployment and post-deployment reintegration.

Week #1 tips: Try talking with your child about any phase of deployment.

  • Help your children stay in touch with their deployed parent—whether through phone calls, videos, or email. Keeping the absent parent up-to-date with events on the home front helps make the homecoming easier.
  • Talk about changes that occur during deployment. If your child doesn’t want to talk, encourage expression through playing or drawing.
  • Allow and encourage your children to ask any questions they may have regarding deployment—before, during, and after—and give them open, honest, and age-appropriate answers.

Reconnecting with your teenager

Teenagers can sometimes have difficulty with a deployed parent's return.

Once the initial excitement of returning home wears off, getting back into the family routine after deployment can often be difficult. Teenagers, who already have a lot of changes to worry about, can sometimes have a difficult time accepting the return of a family member from deployment. As the returning parent, you can do several things to help ease the transition back home:

  • Let your teen know that you are sad to have missed important events in his or her life.
  • Ask questions about what is going on in his or her life. Make an effort to get to know his or her friends.
  • Finally, be sure to listen when he or she tells you about his or her feelings.

Taking these steps will allow your teen to open up to you and eventually will strengthen your relationship. For more tips, visit Real Warriors.

Look over there! Diverting deployment stress

Distractions are a great way to keep a child’s mind off of deployment stressors.

Distractions are a great way to help reduce stress, as they allow a child or teen to take his or her mind off of deployment—to a point. A great idea for parents is to provide plenty of opportunities for social activities (i.e., sports, clubs, etc.). Many of the sources of stress from a deployment have no ready solution, so distractions can be helpful. Providing events that families can partake in together (i.e., bowling, arts and crafts, etc.) are a great way to bring families together. Research shows that the most common forms of adolescent distractions are reading, drawing, playing computer games, listening to music, and playing with pets.

Communication is key

Proper communication between parents and children during deployment can reduce the risk of potential behavioral concerns.

Throughout the duration of a deployment, communication with children is extremely important. Parents sometimes are unsure how much information they should communicate to their children, with good reason: research shows that too much information can be overwhelming and stressful for children. Operation R.E.A.D.Y. provides an interactive booklet that helps you explain the deployment process to your children. It’s important for a non-deployed parent to provide updates with regards to the deployment process, but it’s also okay to leave out some details.

Recognizing signs of distress in children

Parents play a crucial role in helping children cope with deployment. Learning to recognize signs of distress can help prevent depression in children.

During deployment, the parent at home plays a pivotal role in providing support for their children. Recognizing signs of deployment-related stress allows you to intervene and prevent future concerns. In young children, signs include unexplained crying, sleep difficulties, eating difficulties, and fear of new people or situations. In adolescents, signs include acting out, misdirected anger, and loss of interest in hobbies. For more signs of distress, read this Military.com article.

Deployments, reunions, and family roles

Deployments and reunions can cause military families to experience stress and uncertainty about family roles. Confusion can occur when family members have to take on their service member’s pre-deployment roles and responsibilities in addition to their own. Once reunited, both the service member and his or her family members should communicate openly when re-establishing previous tasks or assigning new ones.

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.

Tips for helping children cope with deployment

HPRC recommends three ways to help provide youth with support during deployment.

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.

              Lean on me: Providing support for children

              Minimize relocation for youth through relying on support systems.

              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.

              New report focuses on psychological resilience within the U.S. military

              HPRC Fitness Arena: Total Force Fitness
              The RAND Corporation has released a report identifying factors that promote mental resilience within the U.S. military.

              A new DoD-sponsored report titled Promoting Psychological Resilience in the U.S. Military has been released by RAND Corporation and is available in full-text print and downloadable pdf formats. The RAND National Defense Research Institute (RAND NDRI) conducted a focused literature review to identify individual, family, unit and community-level factors for promoting psychological resilience. The study also included a review of resilience programs.

              The full report can be downloaded from the RAND website.

              The Military Family Fitness Model

              The Warfighter’s greatest support usually comes from his or her family, yet families also have to deal with the stress of military life. The Joint Services and the DoD have teamed up to develop a framework for additional support and resources to help families cope with the increased pace of deployment.

              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.

              DCoE's (Defense Centers of Excellence) report [PDF] on the Family Conference can be read here.

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