For some military families, even just saying the word can bring upon stress and anxiety. For others, they see this word as an opportunity to try a new hobby, set out on a new adventure, or simply use it as a time to take on a new challenge to overcome.
What is the word that I am speaking of you might ask? Well, I’m talking about the most commonly referenced military-related transition, and that is deployment.
By Jenny Rea, Ph.D.
As you might recall from Part 1 of this deployment blog post series, the term “deployment” often receives a bad rap. This is due to the fact that deployments have been recognized as the most stressful aspect of military life. In fact, the most significant changes military families experience are during a service member’s deployment (Ormeno et al., 2020).
During deployment, “military families experience communication barriers, fear for the safety of their service members in combat zones, and added stress from other family members – particularly for the co-parent at home” (Frye-Cox, White, Walker O’Neal, & Lucier-Greer, 2022). One study noted that the non-deployed military spouse has been recognized as the cornerstone of the health and wellness of the military family, a role that becomes even more central during deployment (Ormeno et al., 2020).
With an increase in responsibilities, military spouses report higher levels of stress as well as poor physical health, particularly during deployments. These issues are especially more common in deployments that extend beyond six months. Some military spouses reported feeling like single parents during deployments and children may sense their parent’s distress and anxiety, and internalize these emotions (Ormeno et al., 2020).
While the service member is physically away from the at-home family members (e.g., spouse/partner, children, extended family), they will likely be psychologically present, as their family members on the home front will often think about them. This is called boundary ambiguity and it is often experienced as at-home family members adjust to life without their service member.
During deployment, an increase in physical and mental health problems (e.g., lack of adequate sleep, increased stress, depression) among family members, and even in service members, is likely due to boundary ambiguity (Frye-Cox et al., 2022; Ormeno et al., 2020). Fortunately, many service members and their families are able to adapt to the changes in their roles and settle into a new normal – adjusting to the separation and developing a new routine.
A recent review of evidence-based strategies, written by the Military REACH team at Auburn University, highlighted several unique strategies to help military families navigate deployment. Below are a few tips and strategies for you, the service providers working with military families, or the Extension educator, as you assist military families during deployment.
Tips and Strategies for Service Providers
- Assist military families in prioritizing stress management techniques (e.g., exercising; journaling; meditation; self-care; expressing emotions) that can help them cope with stressors and reduce negative emotions about deployment.
- As a family, we have engaged in dance parties at the end of the night to get those last-minute wiggles out and relieve some stress with laughter and movement.
- Monitor families’ adjustment to parenting role changes during deployments (e.g., involvement of the deployed parent in disciplining) and provide support as needed.
- It may be particularly helpful to offer some sort of ‘relief’ or ‘break’ for the at-home parent, such as sharing childcare options or inviting at-home family members to a weekly meal to break up the monogamy of weekly tasks.
- Continue to educate children and adolescents of service members regarding the possible changes in family life during deployment (e.g., changes in daily routines, witnessing the at-home parent taking on more responsibilities).
- Providing a tip sheet that has evidence- or research-based examples to parents may help them talk with their children about the changes deployment may bring to their family life.
- Assess children of deployed service members frequently for symptoms of anxiety, depression, and aggression, as parental deployment may put them at higher risk for developing mental health disorders.
- If possible, try connecting with other professionals that serve children of deployed service members, such as child care centers, youth programs, and schools.
- Help at-home parents and children engage in communication techniques (e.g., communicate more often, use active listening) that will strengthen their bond while the service member is deployed. Strengthening communication may help alleviate deployment-related stress.
- One example might be playing games or doing puzzles together as a way to communicate while engaging in an activity.
- Help service members and their families monitor the ups and downs of deployment. Identify key factors that make some months better than others (e.g., exceptions to the problem) and brainstorm ways to maximize those factors.
- Consider creating paper chains with family members; allow each family member to share one success or positive thing that happened that week or month while their service member was away.
- Teach couples strategies for tackling hard topics together (e.g., softened startup, active listening), ones they can implement while communicating during deployment.
- Encourage realistic expectations for communication during deployment (e.g., advantages and disadvantages of immediate and slower forms of communication) and normalize couple communication experiences (e.g., providing validation when couples describe communication difficulties).
- Nurturing Individual Resilience from a Multisystem Developmental Perspective
- Nurturing Family Resilience Through a Strengths-Based Framework
- The D-Word – Part 1: Preparing Military Families for Deployment
- “It’s Different”: Re-igniting Couples’ Relationships after Deployment
- Navigating Deployment — Strategies to Help Military Families
- Military Marriages Matter: How Deployment Affects Marriages and Couples
- Resource Discovery: Deployment Resources for Military Service Members and Their Families
- The Impact of Deployment on the Parents of Service Members
- Preparing Military Families For Deployment
- Staying Connected During Deployment
- Hard is Normal: What Research Tells Us about Supporting Military Families during Deployment
- Staying Connected During Deployment
- Strengthening Couples’ Relationships – the NERMEM (part 1)
- Strengthening Couples’ Relationships – The HRMET (part 2)
- Strengthening Couples’ Relationships – ELEVATE (part 3)
- Frye-Cox, N., White, M. L., O’Neal, C. W., & Lucier-Greer, M. (2022). Review of evidence-based strategies to help military families navigate deployment. Retrieved from https://militaryreach.auburn.edu/DetailResult?resourceid=69e24a70-ecaa-4b4d-b546-d62ae092c4ec&resType=resSum
- Ormeno, M. D., Roh, Y., Heller, M., Shields, E., Flores-Carrera, A., Greve, M., … & Onasanya, N. (2020). Special concerns in military families. Current Psychiatry Reports, 22(12), 1-7. Special Concerns in Military Families | SpringerLink
This post was written by Jenny Rea, Ph.D., military spouse and mom of four kiddos under six years. Jenny consults with OneOp’s Family Transitions team to provide free and open-access multidisciplinary professional development resources for providers serving military families. You may find more blogs, podcasts, and webinars from Family Transitions. We invite you to engage withOneOp on Twitter @OneOpTeam and on Facebook.