Filed under: Deployment
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For a warfighter, sleep can be just as important to the mission as having enough food, water and ammunition. Realwarriors.net has a great piece on the common myths about sleep and six tips to improve sleep habits while settling into a new routine away from home.
Having children help out with dinner and keeping the same routine when a parent is deployed; marking a calendar with an X for every day their parent is away, and having a great support system are just a few of the strategies that the Sesame Street Workshop's program on "Preparing for Deployment" offers.
They also have age-appropriate workshops for younger children on "When Families Grieve," "Coping with Changes," and "Homecomings Family Routines."
In all relationships, conflict management is often a key ingredient for success. However, the old belief that the best relationships are those without conflict is being replaced with the new understanding that conflict is normal in intimate relationships. The happiest couples, come to find out, are those who manage conflict without being destructive to each other.
Interestingly, research of couples problems over time shows that 31 percent of the problems couples deal with are solvable, and 69 percent are perpetual problems - so being able to manage differences over time is key to marital happiness!
Dr. John Gottman, having studied couples for over 20 years, found that there are key ingredients for relationship happiness:
- Having a strong friendship with your spouse.
- Being able to manage conflict in the relationship (and knowing which problems are solvable).
- Avoiding destructive behavior like criticism, contempt, defensiveness or ignoring your spouse.
- Building dreams and shared meaning with each other.
For military couples in particular, the ability to problem-solve and manage conflict is key to relationship happiness. Fortunately, problem-solving and conflict management are essential ingredients for Warfighter success. Through pre-deployment training, deployment, and reset, Warfighters within each branch learn key strategies for how to manage their emotions, identify problems, develop friendships, share memories together and map strategies for optimal outcomes - all of which are skills that can help foster great family relationships.
However, while deployed, each partner can change in ways that their spouse might not be aware of (both in theater and at home). That’s why making the effort to get to know each other again (even if you've been together for 50 years) is an important part of relationship happiness over time.
Take some time to ask your partner questions like:
- What attracted you to me when we first met?
- Who are your best friends at this point?
- What would you like to see happen for us in the next five years?
- What about yourself are you most proud of?
Questions like these can help foster friendship and positive feelings between you, and keep building dreams for a happy relationship and future together.
Source: These strategies were discussed at the recent American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists conference in September. Specific ideas from Dr. John Gottman's keynote speech, as well as Dr. Robert O'Brien's workshop on "Research-based Conflict Management After Combat Trauma," were used.