Tactics help children cope with deployments



by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs


2/25/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Long separations for deployments, classes, training and conferences can put a strain on children in military families. Just how much of a strain was the focus of a recent study by the RAND foundation, sponsored by the National Military Family Association.

The foundation interviewed more than 1,500 youth ages 11-17 who attended Operation PurpleĀ® summer camp for children of deployed service members. The study's results can help parents help children of all ages adapt to long absences.

The length of deployments can serve as an indicator of stress. The foundation reported, "Families in the study with more months of deployment reported more problems both during deployment and reintegration."

Andrew Tveit, a personal and family readiness consultant for the Airman and Family Readiness Center, said that shorter deployments and absences keep children in flux. They know there are changes, but they haven't fully adjusted to their parents' absence before they return. This may make reintegration easier.

During longer deployments, children develop a new sense of normal. They've adapted to the changes and the new relationships with their parents. This new normal can make reintegration difficult, as families adjust to another sense of normal.

One of the areas where parents and the military community excel is education. Military children with a deployed parent are on par with studies of U.S. youth in their ability to attend to tasks at school.

Any kind of routine, such as the school day, gives children stability.

"That routine is extremely important," said Marie Hixon, a personal and work life consultant for the AFRC. Children know what to expect during the school year, and that does not change while a parent is deployed.

The study also examined the relationship between the caregiver and child, showing that relationships with communication difficulties resulted in youth functioning difficulties.

The study also concluded that caregivers with strong emotional well-being were more likely to have children who functioned well.

"Caregivers' coping abilities are a model for children," Ms. Hixon said.

A plan between the service member and spouse will help the children during the absence.

"What you're doing before you go, laying that foundation, is so important," said Chaplain (Capt.) David Merrifield of the base chapel. He and his wife, Monica, have two children. His wife has been through four deployments and his daughter, two. His son was a newborn when he left for his last deployment in Iraq.

During this deployment, Chaplain Merrifield brought lots of stickers and cards with dogs on them to send to his daughter. He knew what would make her laugh and appeal to her on her level.

He and his wife agreed to be intentional to make the time for connecting. She helped Makana make and mail cookies, and he made sure to take and e-mail photos of him enjoying the treats.

"Those were the best cookies ever," he said.

Relating to the children on their level will ease the transition during reintegration, Chaplain Merrifield said. Since his son was a newborn when the chaplain left for Iraq during his last deployment, it took three months for his son to adjust to his father being home and to having a man around the house.

When it comes to reconnecting, "Don't give up," he said. "Get on the floor and be at his level."

For older children, Ms. Hixon recommends a ceremony, where the service member gives out coins.

"Recognition of extra chores and duties can go a long way," she said.

Children are ego-centric, and take it personally when a parent misses a birthday, milestone or special event. Maybe pull out the Christmas tree and celebrate the missed holidays.

Ms. Hixon recommends building these activities into pre-deployment discussions, giving the children something to look forward to during reintegration.

Small traditions are important, too. Mr. Tveit suggests that families start game night or pizza night before deployment. This reinforces the sense of routine and gives children something to look forward to each week.

"Traditions keep the family close together," he said. "They make the long term not look so bad."

For more information on this study, visit www.militaryfamily.org or www.rand.org.

Resources help spouses cope

Military spouses want to be strong during deployments and long absences, but sometimes that strength comes from asking for help.

"Don't be afraid to be vulnerable," said Monica Merrifield, who has gone through four deployments since marrying Chaplain (Capt.) David Merrifield. "Say yes when people offer to help."

Sometimes the trick is finding the right kind of support.

"People want to help, but they may not know how," she said.

Something as simple as a children's play date can make the difference. Both moms gain from the experience. The military spouse has time to run errands or work out, while the other mom feels like she's made a difference.

Networking and connecting with other spouses can alleviate some of the emotional stress.

Chaplain Merrifield deployed to Iraq shortly after the family's move to Maxwell, leaving Monica to handle a 2-year-old and a newborn. She turned to the chapel's Bible study to meet other spouses and stay connected to her faith.

The following is some of the ways the Maxwell-Gunter community offers support to spouses.

Support

The chapel has many programs for meeting other spouses, including bible studies, volunteer opportunities and a deployed family dinner once a quarter. For information, call 953-2109.

Spouses of deployed service members or of those at remote locations can meet other spouses at the weekly Chill and Chat at 10:30 a.m. Thursdays at the Maxwell Event Center. Children are welcome.

"(The program) brings everyone together, so you know you're all in the same boat," said Andrew Tveit, a personal and family readiness consultant for the Airman and Family Readiness Center.

The youth centers host the Give Parents a Break/Parent Night Out program, offering childcare from 2-6 p.m. March 5 and 6-10 p.m. April 1. The Air Force Aid Society gives free certificates to parents in high-stress situations who need a break. Call 953-2353 for information.

Entertainment

The AFRC gives free tickets to families during deployment and reintegration. Mr. Tveit sends out e-mails through the Key Spouse program with information on upcoming performances, Operation PurpleĀ® Family Retreats and Military Kids Camp.

At a previous Tops in Blue performance, he had a VIP section for the families of deployed spouses. Before the show, the group was given a standing ovation by the audience.

"We want to recognize you for your sacrifices, too," he said.

Counseling

The Military and Family Life Consultant program offers free, nonmedical counseling services on or off base. Services are confidential and private, except in duty-to-warn situations involving abuse. Licensed clinical counselors work with families, individuals, couples and children on a variety of issues, including deployment and reintegration stress. Call 430-4409 for information.

The Child and Youth Behavioral Program is a component of the MFLC program, offering support for children and those who care for them. Issues addressed include deployment, separation and reunion adjustments. Call 322-2314 for information.

"Children have a different way (than adults) of expressing their frustration during deployments," Mr. Tveit said. "These counselors are trained to talk to kids at their level."

Military One Source offers face-to-face counseling, telephone consultations and online consultations to service members and their families. Twelve sessions are available at no cost. Visit www.militaryonesource.com and click on "counseling" in the maroon box on the left.

Mr. Tveit recommends that caregivers who need help ask for it, especially during deployments.

Children look up to their parents and emulate their actions.

"Part of becoming an adult is teaching (your children) it's OK to get help," he said. "Help is available. All you have to do is pick up the phone."