Strenuous at times, particularly with the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and the unstable international climate, the military lifestyle provides significant opportunities for learning and growth. However, the lifestyle also comes with unique challenges, such as the post-deployment stage— the return of a parent from active duty.
The stage of deployment, when a parent leaves to serve his or her country, is of course difficult for family members. The reunion process can be just as arduous. During post-deployment, expectations and anxiety levels run high and fears of isolation surface.
According to Rachel E. Lyons, a Rutgers 4-H Youth Development faculty member and director of the New Jersey Operation: Military Kids Initiative, a military family’s reunion brings both joy and anxiety. “When families are reunited after a deployment, they usually experience feelings of relief and a blur of excitement,” says Lyons. “After a few weeks, this honeymoon phase ends and a new reality sinks in. As the pressures of daily life intensify, tension within the family mounts.”
To cope with the new reality, Lyons recommends parents be aware of what’s to be expected during post-deployment. “Families can transition more easily from a state of constant anxiety and fear to acceptance and closure by understanding there are three stages of the reunion process— anticipation, readjustment and stabilization,” reveals Lyons. “It is important to note that this process takes time and that length of time is variable from one family to another.”
The APA Task Force on Promoting Resilience in Response to Terrorism notes that with the return of a parent from active duty it’s important to remember that everyone has likely changed during the period of separation. If you are a military family, talk about each person’s changes and discuss what routines should be adapted by family members. It’s also critical to know that everyone needs time to readjust to living together and needs to get reacquainted through talking and active listening.
Lynne Kulakowski, LCSW, of New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Nichol’s Cottage Inpatient Children’s Unit, offers insight to make routines work. “The returning parent needs to be immediately reintegrated within the routine of the house; co-parenting is an absolute must,” says the senior social worker. “The primary caregiver must work hard to empower the returning parent to take an active stance in terms of creating a positive and hopeful atmosphere. Acceptance comes from a state of peace, which can be established by the parent’s attitude and actions.” Honesty is also crucial. “Parents need to be honest with children without inducing fear,” adds Kulakowski. “Talk about what the family can do together for the present and the future.”
While talking about personal feelings may pose problems for anyone, it is often especially challenging for children. Kids tend to blame themselves for a parent’s frequent absences and do not fully understand situations specific to military families. Generally depending on the child’s age, some kids act out, while others bottle up their angst. Ways to help your child express personal sentiments in a constructive manner include striving for a sense of normalcy, encouraging routine and informing your child’s teachers about the change at home. Also set a time to talk as a family, giving each child a chance to voice concerns and ask questions. Let your children decide if they want both parents involved in the family discussion; whatever makes the situation most comfortable for each child is ideal.
Some nonprofit organizations like Sesame Workshop, which produces the popular series Sesame Street, are involved in helping military families adjust to change. This past year, Sesame Workshop released Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Families Cope with Military Deployment. The DVD kit covers all phases of deployment, including the military person’s homecoming and the challenges each phase presents. This outreach initiative is a bilingual project distributed with the support of retired military officers.
Another initiative is Operation: Military Kids (OMK). This is the United States Army’s collaborative effort with America’s communities to nurture kids in active duty families. Groups affiliated with OMK include Rutgers Cooperative Extension 4-H, the National Guard, Army Reserve, Military Child Education Coalition and Boys and Girls Clubs of America, just to name a few. The mission is to support military youth before, during and after the deployment of a parent or loved one by creating networks of people, organizations and other resources.
Delivering a wide range of recreational, social and educational programs for military youth living in civilian communities is incredibly important and, sadly, too often overlooked. Acknowledging the strengths and sacrifices of military kids as everyday home-front heroes needs to be made a priority.
Supportive organizations such as Sesame Workshop aim to help families deal with the understanding that their deployed loved ones may be in harm’s way and educate the public on the impact of the deployment cycle on soldiers, families, kids and the community as a whole. Perhaps the community will follow the lead in guiding military families toward a better tomorrow so that great learning and growth occurs for everyone.