Helping Military Families After Deployment

As we celebrate Social Work Month this March, we are proud to share our work to help military families better cope with stress—both before and after deployment. Last year I highlighted CEHD’s first of its kind research project, Project ADAPT, to improve parenting during a very difficult period, with the support of the Minnesota National Guard and Reserves.

We’ve now recruited more than 300 families and have positive preliminary outcome data including a very high participation rate of 78% with an equal number of women and men participating.

In our recent feature on CNN, participants share that even a family member who is used to the demands of military life can face problems when they return. If something was “broken” before deployment it isn’t suddenly fixed upon return. And as the euphoria of returning home begins to wear off, we help parents deal with “regular life.”

A Focus on Emotional Health

One of the most important components of Project ADAPT is a focus on mindfulness—in other words, being present in the moment. When military members go to war, they are taught to put their emotions aside. When they return, often with combat stress, they aren’t really present with their family. It’s natural for people to avoid difficult memories by being distracting – trying to “zone out” at home, for example. We say that you’re in your mind, instead of in your life. Our goal is for parents to be present with their family.

We also want to help with emotional health, which is critical for dealing with discipline issues that can often arise with kids whose parents have returned from deployment. With one parent deployed, a child becomes used to being comforted and cared for by the single parent at home. A lot of anxiety can arise during reintegration as children become used to having two parents at home.

Common Challenges of Military Families

With deployments ranging from a few months to even two years, it is difficult to acclimate to “regular life” immediately. Often it can take an entire year to adjust. Parents may feel these three common challenges:

  1. Getting back on the same page since one parent has been responsible for all decisions for a year or more.
  2. Sharing responsibilities or changing how things are done.
  3. Tension between parents as the one parent who has been completely accountable during deployment feels, now it’s your turn.

Some keys to success from Project ADAPT participants are:

  • Be intentional: talk about upcoming deployments, plan for the duration of deployment (and after). Together as a family, make the process as concrete as you can.
  • Create security for kids with the “3 Rs”: routines, rules and rituals. Structure provides reassurance and stability for children and parents.
  • Stay connected while maintaining busy routines: Encourage kids and the deployed parents to exchange pictures, stories or send video or audio clips.

If you are a parent who has at least one child between the ages of 5-12 years and at least one of the parents in your household has been deployed – please contact us to find out more about being a part of our project!

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Here are 3 ways to help kids and parents cope with deployment stress.

Read more coverage on Project ADAPT in the Star TribuneStars & Stripes and Military.com.

Abigail Gewirtz

About the Author

Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D.

  • Professor, Department of Family Social Science and the Institute of Child Development
  • Principal Investigator, ADAPT
  • College of Education and Human Development (CEHD)
  • University of Minnesota

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