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Coping strategies for families impacted by military service

November 06, 2013

I was eating lunch in a local restaurant yesterday and saw a young woman in military clothing sitting with a slightly older woman. I imagined they were mother and daughter and I could see that the mother’s face was animated and smiling.  As I left and nodded to them, I almost felt tearful. I have not served in the military, but it seems that those who do make a significant sacrifice on behalf of the rest of us. I am touched by their willingness to serve.

Today’s military forces are comprised of a very diverse group: men, women, married, never married, divorced, parenting, straight out of high school, and people embarking on a second career. With the smaller force and prolonged overseas conflicts, many families find that both parents can be deployed at the same time, an unfortunate circumstance that used to be avoided in the military. No matter what the situation, deployment and the return home can have a significant impact on the family unit and on individual family members.

A recent article published in the journal Pediatrics states that almost 60% of U.S. service members have family responsibilities, and that almost half of service members have had multiple deployments of up to 18 months duration. In the past ten years, up to two million children have been exposed to the wartime deployment of a loved one. Clearly, this is a widespread situation that affects many, and everyone can contribute to supporting service members and their families.

What to do if your family is impacted by military service

If you are a member of a family impacted by military service with or without deployment, you can learn about some of the common stressors that may impact you and your loved ones. Ask health care providers for information on how adults and children cope with being a part of a military family. When children experience mood changes or challenging behaviors, it is important to consider the relationship those things might have to the military situation, but it is also important to consider other sources of stress, and not to write everything off as being related to a parent’s military service. The ability of children to cope with any stressor is significantly impacted by how their parents are coping. To maintain well-being in a family, parents must get support and have their own emotional and mental health needs addressed.

Throughout the experience, it is important to share feelings and concerns, both between parents and between parents and children. Both children and adults need be able to share their fears and concerns and be allowed to ask questions that are answered honestly. Parents can share their concerns in different ways with children of different ages, but it is important that children know their parents have concerns and are willing to talk about them. This gives children permission to discuss their own positive and negative emotions, as well as their hopes and fears.

According to the article, there are specific actions families can take at all stages of deployment that can be helpful in building a family’s resilience and helping them cope.

Prior to deployment: a family can examine their history of family function and dysfunction and look at the mental health needs of each parent and child. The family can also consider any special needs the children may have, and general family stressors, such as a recent move. Open discussion is key during this phase (and all phases of the process). Pre-deployment discussions can include topics such as the responsibilities and expectations of each family member, as well the family’s goals and plans during the deployment.

During initial deployment: families can implement their plan, continue family traditions and maintain day-to-day structure, as well as develop new traditions (such as how to celebrate special occasions and include the deployed service member from a distance). Help children understand the nature of the deployment using calendars, counting devices or visual timelines. I remember a friend who was waiting for a loved one to return from a time-limited separation who counted up the days the loved one would be gone and then put that number of M&Ms in a jar. She then ate one M&M a day. As the number in the jar decreased, she had a visual reminder that time was passing and that her loved one’s return was getting closer and closer.

As the deployment continues: families can establish and access support systems, and communicate with the deployed family member in various ways (e-mail, Skype, letters and drawings, phone calls, care packages, social media). Avoid and address negative coping such as: over-spending, use of alcohol or other drugs by parents or teens, and/or thrill-seeking behaviors. Regularly ask children how they are feeling and address any topics of concern.

As you enter the post-deployment phase: take time to reconnect and talk, identify changes in routine, and keep family life simple. Allow the service member to re-adjust, be aware of post-traumatic stress symptoms such as: hyper vigilance, lasting insomnia, extreme startle responses, increased alcohol or drug use, and irritability and seek help if those symptoms emerge. Discuss welcome home celebrations and large gatherings with family and friends, and respect the wishes of the returning family member in regards to these events. Include returning family member in decisions and day-to-day routines.

Seek out help

It seems as though there is often reluctance to seek help within the military. The military has recognized increased mental health concerns and post-traumatic stress amongst active and discharged military personnel, especially in regards to two very concerning issues: suicidal thought and sexual assault.   Despite recent efforts to provide support to returning veterans, I still hear service personnel and family members say they are hesitant to admit they need assistance. However, over 50% of military families seek medical and mental health treatment from providers outside of the military system, which may be a more comfortable option for some families. There are also resources available for self-help.

Military life involves everyone associated with the soldier: his or her parents, spouses, siblings, children, friends and other loved ones. We all need to act to support those who defend our country and our freedom.

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