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12 ways to support families affected by military service

November 11, 2013

I recently wrote about some of the parented by active military troops. While not all of us have a loved one serving in the military, we can all support the troops and the loved ones they leave behind. There are organized efforts to provide support to these families, especially around holiday time. In addition to these activities, we can provide emotional and practical support in some simple, every day ways.

One of the best things that we as a community can do to support service members and their families is to become educated about the stressors and challenges they experience. By doing this, we can better distinguish between the myths and facts about the strain on families. For example, did you know:

Many military families struggle financially both during deployment and before and after deployment. They have the same expenses as other families, and usually, additional expenses such as: travel to be with their loved ones for leaves, loss of income if one spouse goes to be with the other after an injury or during medical recovery, loss of income if a reservist is called to active duty and leaves his/her civilian job during the period of deployment, extra child care costs, extra expenses in maintaining a home to pay for what the service member used to do (like repairs and lawn maintenance).

It takes the average family six to eight weeks to re-adjust when a service member returns home. There may be a brief “honeymoon” period right after the return, but emotional reactions during the initial months after return can be challenging to deal with, as everyone readjusts to his/her role in the family and deals with feelings that they may not even know they were feeling during the deployment.

Studies have shown that service members who receive social support from extended family members, community members, and friends have better mental health outcomes than those who do not.

The large majority of military families live in our communities. That is, they do not live on military bases, and therefore do not have the kind of support that comes from living on base.

Here are some practical suggestions for what you can do:

  1. Offer to help in specific ways that last over time. For example, offer to mow the family’s lawn every other week, take the family car for an oil change every three months, host a sleep-over for their kids and your kids every other month so the remaining parent can have some much-needed alone time.
  2. Include the family in your own family’s holiday celebrations. Having Thanksgiving or Christmas without Mom or Dad can be more bearable when the kids are with friends and the parent has other adults to relate to.
  3. When you’re shopping for school supplies or other necessities, buy an extra set for a child in a military family.
  4. Be patriotic and let the military family know that you appreciate the sacrifice they and their loved one are making. If you disagree with the politics of the deployment, it is probably best to keep your opinions to yourself.
  5. Offer to help the “at home” spouse transport their kids to after-school and weekend activities.
  6. Drop off an “instant fun” package—maybe a board game with some popcorn and soda, a set of tickets to a local museum or movie theater, a football or baseball with directions to a local park and a gift card for a pizza.
  7. Listen without judgment. Allow the parent or other caregiver and the kids to talk about their fear, anger, frustration, and exhaustion. Offering reassurance or problem-solving too quickly can cause them to feel like they are wrong for not being constantly upbeat and supportive. It is normal for feelings to vacillate, and a listening ear helps people work through their difficult times.
  8. Be aware that grandparents sometimes become full-time caregivers, and offer them practical and active support.
  9. Remember to help and keep helping. Sometimes a family receives a lot of support right after a deployment, and then the overtures stop as time goes on.
  10. Take a military spouse out to celebrate his/her birthday or recognize them on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
  11. When the service member returns home, allow the family some time alone to re-adjust. When you do extend an invitation, ask if the returning soldier prefers large or small gatherings.
  12. Refrain from asking the returning service member to discuss what happened during his/her deployment. Listen if they initiate discussion but allow them to keep their experiences private if that is their preference.
These and other great ideas can be found in the resources below. The most important thing is to do something. If you don’t know what to offer, suggest a few ideas and ask which is most needed. Parents may be shy about asking for help, but kids will often tell you what they miss most about their absent parent, giving you a good opportunity to reach out.

National Military Family Association

Communities Support Military Families

Related article on how to help military and veteran families