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Helping kids cope with parent’s deployment

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Helping kids cope with parent’s deployment

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March 30, 2010

"Families that have a parent deploying are undergoing an enormous amount of change," according to Jay A. Mancini, the Haltiwanger Distinguished Professor of Child and Family Development in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences, who conducted the research along with Angela Huebner of Virginia Tech. "There are the changes that are occurring for both the person in Afghanistan and the family members at home, but there are also the dramatic changes that normally occur in adolescents over the course of 12 or more months."

The military and other organizations have developed a variety of programs to help family members cope with deployment, unfortunately, relatively few of them work with families as a whole, Mancini said.

"Frequently, programs designed to help youth are only targeted to the youth," Mancini said. "What our research confirmed was the pivotal role of parents in helping their children cope. Consequently programs targeted at youth need to also account for their family relationships."

The study, conducted in 2008, included interviews with 85 adolescents ranging in age from 11 to 18, many of whom were attending Operation Military Kids camps in Florida, Maine, North Carolina and Ohio. The camps, a partnership between the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, are designed for youth with military parents. Participants met with an interviewer in groups of eight to 10 and were asked an array of questions regarding their parent's deployment and its impact, both on them individually and on other family members. Among the youth who participated, 20 had experienced a parent deploying multiple times while 38 had experienced one deployment. The remaining participants hadn't experienced a parent deploying to another country, but had experienced separation due to a parent's temporary duty assignments or training demands.

Mancini and Huebner looked closely at how the participants described their experiences when their parents were deployed. How the participants learned of the pending deployment, their interactions with their parents prior to, during and following deployment, the support of extended family members, and how family roles evolved were all discussed by the participants.

Adolescents who seemed to have coped best with deployment tended to be those who had intentional interactions with their parents and others, Mancini said. In those cases, the parents arranged family meetings prior to deployment, and ongoing discussions occurred regarding how the adolescent was coping both during and after deployment. In the worst-case scenarios, the parents avoided discussing deployment (including one instance where an adolescent learned of his father's pending deployment from a neighbor). In some families, the parent-child relationship nearly reversed with the adolescent feeling responsible for the remaining parent's well being or for always putting on a "happy face" for the deployed parent.

Huebner noted that a number of the participants continued to expect their parent to be redeployed, even if the parent had retired from the military. "There's such a sense of hypervigilance," she said. "They're constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop."

A parent's return from active duty also meant, in at least some cases, dealing with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, Huebner said.

"I think what's important to consider is that the whole family system has to allow for movement," she said. "You can't expect a parent who has symptoms of PTSD to just set that aside and be the person he was before deployment-and if they understand what's going on, adolescents can adapt to those changes."

Both Huebner and Mancini said the issues facing adolescents of deploying parents are exacerbated if those parents are in the National Guard or Army Reserve due to how dispersed those families are, a situation that has become increasingly common with 45 percent of the U.S. military's deployed force currently being made up of service members in the National Guard and Reserve.

"Very few Guard or Reserve families live near military installations," Mancini said. "While the members of the units know each other, in many cases the families have never met so there aren't the informal support networks that tend to exist among families of active duty soldiers."

The study, which was funded by Headquarters Army Child, Youth and School Services and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, concludes with many suggestions for how family support program professionals can assist parents and adolescents. Programs for parents need to emphasize the importance of family meetings, including having age-appropriate discussions on upcoming deployments and the changes in roles and responsibilities that will result. In addition, parents need to understand how their anxieties and emotions can affect their children's well being, the report says. Of particular significance, according to Mancini, is the importance of providing supports to youth and families during the return and reintegration phase of deployment because it is then that families are again intact and challenged with recalibrating their interactions and ways of being a family.

Programs for youth need to include information on "normal and expected" responses to a parent's deployment, including worry and poor concentration, and the likelihood that conflicts may arise as a result of a parent's absence, the report says. Perhaps most important, adolescents need to learn "strategies for communicating complex feelings, and realize the importance of sharing feelings with parents," the report says. Finally, the report suggests that adolescents be encouraged to create an "advice blog" or keep an advice diary. While their writing may help other youth in similar situations, an advice blog can help them document their own successes at coping, the report says.

"As I read the data, I was taken with how much uncertainty is in the lives of these youth," Mancini said. "We need prevention and intervention programs that intentionally focus on that. We need to identify what certainties there are in the lives of youth in military families that can be reinforced."