Filed under: Military families
Caring for elderly parents, even in the best of situations, can be difficult for anyone. But it can be even more of a challenge for military service members. Trying to make long-term care and emergency decisions for elderly parents while simultaneously carrying a great deal of responsibility at work can cause a lot of worry. Military service members are also often deployed overseas, far away from their aging parents, which makes it more difficult to monitor their parents’ well-being. As parents age, they may need assistance with daily activities such as home maintenance, personal hygiene, and meals. And if a medical emergency occurs without a contingency plan in place, it adds to the burden of guilt and anxiety over what could happen in the service member’s absence.
A service member’s worry increases as the age of his parents increases, according to a study of senior-ranking male officers aged 40-49, especially if the parents have had any prior illnesses. The uneasiness of a service member decreased if he had other siblings and a solid parent-care plan in place.
Here are some preemptive steps that a service member can take to make sure his or her parents are well cared for, even from a different continent:
- Research what community and government resources are available for information and support services in your parents’ neighborhood.
- Ask siblings, extended family members, neighbors, and friends to help with your parent-care responsibilities.
- Schedule regular phone calls or Skype chats for updates on your parents’ health.
- Develop a care plan together with your parents before a medical emergency occurs.
With so many people counting on you, it is important to be organized, mentally solid, and in control of every situation no matter what happens. Strategic planning and communication can make all the difference in caring for your elderly parents from afar and help you maintain performance while dealing with additional stress loads. For more information on caregiver support and eldercare, please visit the National Resource Directory and the Armed Forces Crossroads.
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.
As a non-deployed parent, taking care of yourself is important. Taking time just for you has been linked to better parenting, healthier lifestyles, and greater satisfaction with life overall. Also, parental can model healthy ways to manage and cope with stress that effectively decrease children's worry, as they sometimes express concern over their parents’ health and support. Real Warriors suggests scheduling time to relax with a book, do gardening, or practice yoga. Volunteering at a local charity is also a great way to provide both personal satisfaction and connection to community.
“Capitalization” refers to the process by which people share good news with one another. Studies have shown that responding to good news with support and enthusiasm helps build a stronger relationship between two individuals. Using capitalization with your loved ones can not only strengthen your relationship, but also can ease the transition for returning Warfighters and their loved ones.
Young children need consistency and predictability in the environment in which they grow up. Maintaining consistent expectations with regards to education, work, and family responsibilities is crucial in a child’s healthy development, as well as for family relations. A great way to achieve a sense of consistency is to create family rituals. MilitaryOneSource suggests rituals such as reading letters aloud during dinner and eating together as a family.
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.
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.