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Create meaning out of your experiences

Creating a shared understanding of challenging experiences is an important resilience-building skill for families.

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.

A 30-day challenge for families!

Challenge your family to 30 days of relationship strengthening activities with FOCUS’s calendar of activities.

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.

Stress: Learn to deal with it together

When dealing with stress, manage the source of the stress as well as the stressful feelings.

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.

Staggering stats about teens and stress

Teens are stressed out, and families dealing with deployments can face extra stress. Learn more and pick up some practical tips.

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."

Questions families of Reserve & National Guard members need to ask

Asking some questions ahead of time can help families of National Guard and Reserve Warfighters when it is time to deploy.

HPRC recently posted an article with questions that parents of deploying Warfighters need to ask, but families of National Guard and Reserve Warfighters have additional challenges when their Warfighter deploys (such as being away from support at installations, financial changes, and shifts in childcare). It can help to think through some of these challenges and come up with a game plan ahead of time. Here are some examples to start with:

  • Who needs to know about the upcoming deployment? (Teachers, doctors…)
  • What’s the plan in case of an emergency (either stateside or while deployed)?
  • Will the childcare arrangements need to shift during deployment? (This is especially important for single parents.)
  • Will family income be reduced? Who will manage finances during this time?
  • How will family members keep in touch with the deployed Warfighter? Does everyone in the family agree, or are there individual preferences? (For example, your oldest child may prefer to Skype rather than write letters.)
  • Are there any military support organizations those at home can use for extra support?
  • Will any holidays or birthdays be missed during the deployment? If so, maybe something special can be done ahead of time and saved for the specific day.

For more information on resources for before, during, and after deployment, check out the “Families & Deployment“ section of HPRC’s website.

Building family resilience

Further strengthen your family’s resilience with this new resource that discusses how to build it during and following deployment.

Building family resilience is a process that lasts a lifetime, but it can be immensely rewarding. But what is resilience and how can military families in particular build it? HPRC has a resource called “Building Family Resilience” that can give you answers to these questions. The article covers military-specific stressors for families—including how deployment and reintegration impact family relationships, war-related physical and mental health conditions, and individual stress responses and risky behaviors in family members, both adults and children. It also highlights three key resilience-building skills—mind-body, cognitive-behavioral, and communication—and highlights resources to build resilience. Check it out.

For more information on building family resilience, check out the Family Resilience section of HPRC’s website.

How parents of service members can help

Parents of deploying Warfighters can help their son or daughter in many ways to get ready for deployment.

Calling all parents of deployed or soon-to-be deployed Warfighters! With your son or daughter’s deployment—particularly the first one—there are probably questions that need answering before your son or daughter heads out. Experts suggest some of the following may help prepare for your child’s deployment:

  • Help your Warfighter figure out what responsibilities need to be covered while he or she is deployed and which ones can be managed from abroad. For example, how will the cell phone bill get paid? If he/she has a pet, who will care for it? (Check out HPRC's article about the latter.) Are there any bills that can be put on autopayment (such as a car payment)?
  • Also, who will keep/store the car, motorcycle, or other belongings? Will anyone be allowed to drive or use them?
  • Then there are the tough but necessary questions such as who will make medical decisions if your Warfighter becomes disabled and who will be the beneficiary of death benefits.
  • Finally, if your Warfighter has a girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband, make sure you know them and have established open lines of communication, as they are often the ones with the most information about your son or daughter while deployed.

Planning for these kinds of details ahead of time can help make deployment(s) go smoothly. You can also encourage them to take advantage of their G.I. benefits for schooling while deployed. For more resources to help with deployment, explore the Deployment section of HPRC’s Family & Relationships domain.

Keep the happy in holidays: Celebrate your friends and family

Celebrate your friends and family this holiday season by showing them you appreciate them.

While it’s true that sometimes the ones we love the most are the ones who can really get under our skin, particularly during the holidays when everyone’s together (know what your irritators are and how to deal with them), it’s also true that many of us have reason to celebrate our family and friends.

Appreciation is a powerful tool in fostering strong relationships, but it’s often overlooked in the business of everyday life. This holiday season take the time to let your family and friends know that you appreciate them. This can be in words or actions—it could be as simple as just taking the time to let them know you love and appreciate them, or you could show your appreciation with a gesture. For example, maybe your brother or best friend hasn’t had time for his favorite hobby lately due to family responsibilities. By offering to babysit the kids for an afternoon, you’d give him the chance to take time for himself. Small things go a long way in showing appreciation—this holiday season and all next year.

For more ideas on strengthening relationships, check out the Family Relationships section of HPRC’s website.

Keep the happy in the holidays: Shift your thinking

Start this year’s holiday season by focusing on being happy. Shift your thinking to decrease stress.

The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy, but for many the expectations around the season leave them feeling depressed, lacking in motivation, feeling family friction more acutely, and on top of all of that, vulnerable to overeating. Now’s the time to shift your thinking to stay happy this holiday season. Check back every week as we present tips on how you can do this for yourself.

Tip #1: Shift your thinking to decrease stress

Realistically, it’s unlikely you can make holiday stress just go away, but you can change your response to that stress. Noticing your thoughts and emotional reactions can empower you to experience different, less-charged reactions, resulting in more positive thoughts and actions. Learn about the common thinking traps that you can get stuck in and how to reframe them. Noticing and then shifting your thinking can have a big impact on what you feel—try it out and see for yourself.

For more ideas, check out HPRC’s section on Mental Resilience.

Having the same conversation over and over?

Going over the same things again and again in your relationship—with no new results? Learn how to break that cycle.

Do you ever feel that you and your partner talk about the same issues over and over again? You’re not alone: Only 30% or so of the problems couples struggle with can actually be solved, leading to discussions that keep coming up about the other 70%. Solving the issues that can be solved is great, but learning how to interact in a positive manner about the “perpetual problems” is a good skill in any relationship.

One way to do this is to go through a structured problem-solving strategy such as this:

  1. Specifically state the issue.
  2. Briefly state why the issue is important.
  3. Brainstorm and discuss possible solutions to the issue.
  4. Have everyone involved agree on a realistic “solution”—even if it’s just a game plan for how each person is going to respond about the topic.
  5. Pick a specific amount of time to try the solution.
  6. Then give the solution a try.

Remember, the “solution” doesn’t have to mean a resolution to the problem; it can just be about new ways to approach the issue. For example, if you fight over one of you being late frequently, discuss ahead of time how you each would like the other person to respond. Maybe the latecomer needs to call or text if running late, or the punctual person calls ahead to find out if the other will be on time. And maybe you need to set a window of time rather than something exact.

For more tips on communication between two people, check out “Basic Training for Couples—Communication” and more in HPRC’s Relationship Enhancement section.

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