Unifying Military Families

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All over the world, men and women in the military are being deployed at the call of their governments. For them and their families, the impact of war hits very close to home. As these courageous men and women fight dangerous physical battles, they also fight an emotional battle--staying close to their families. Back at home, their spouses carry the burden of keeping the family unified.

For the Departing Spouse: Preparing Yourself and Your Family for Your Departure

As soon as you know you might be deployed, take extra measures to prepare your family for your absence and to keep them close while you're away. Here are a few ideas:

  • Spend individual time with each of your children and with your spouse.
  • Let your children help you pack your bags.
  • Exchange items with special meaning with your children to help them remember you.
  • Discuss together how the family will function while you're gone.
  • Make sure your family is prepared financially.
  • Make sure your family is prepared for emergencies.
  • Keep up on home repairs and maintenance.
  • Resolve marital and other family problems as soon as they arise.
  • Make the most of the time you have together.
  • Celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions late or early so you can be present.

For the Spouse at Home: Dealing with the Absence of Your Spouse

After your spouse has left, you likely will feel loneliness, fear, doubt, sadness, and frustration. You may feel overwhelmed by your extra responsibilities. One woman whose husband was deployed during the Gulf War said, "The hardest part about having your spouse away is the loneliness and the worry that your spouse may not come back home." These feelings are difficult to deal with, but you can do several things to make it easier.

  • Be open and honest about your feelings with your spouse, children, close friends and family. Don't try to hide them.
  • Give your children a calendar that shows when your spouse will be coming home so they don't have to ask you about it all the time.
  • Keep your spouse informed about what's happening at home. It's especially important to notify him or her about family emergencies.
  • Spend extra time with your children. This will help you feel closer to them and will help them feel your support and love.
  • If practical, go back to school.
  • Take up a new hobby.
  • Seek part- or full-time employment.
  • Volunteer.
  • Participate in a Family Support Center or other support programs for military spouses.

Helping Children Handle the Absence of a Parent

As you struggle with the separation, your children are also having a hard time. Each child reacts to separation in different ways. If you know general patterns of how children of different ages are likely to react, you'll be able to help them better.

Infants

Infants usually don't feel stress on their own but rather sense stressed adults and react by becoming fussy and irritable. To minimize these reactions, provide babies with a calm, unchanging environment and consistent care.

Toddlers

Toddlers may become clingy, withdrawn or depressed. They may refuse to eat. To help them feel less insecure and more protected, provide them with a predictable routine and plenty of attention.

Preschoolers

Stressed preschoolers often return to behaviors they've outgrown, such as fussing, crying, and bedwetting. Some might think they caused the parent to leave, though they usually can't verbalize this. Be sure they understand they are not the cause of the separation. It also helps if you simplify their schedule and emphasize basic needs.

School-Age Children

Bedtime may be a difficult time for younger school-age children. They may not want to go to sleep because they're afraid other family members will leave while they're asleep. Older school-age children may hide their feelings by being involved in many activities. Help children this age realize that it's okay to feel sad and to cry. It also helps them to play with other children who are going through the same thing. They thrive when involved in hobbies, sports, arts and crafts, and other activities that help them focus their energy.

Teenagers

Adolescents tend to distance themselves from others as a defense against emotional pain. They need you to keep communication lines open and to provide situations where conversation is natural, such as family meals and running errands together. For many teenagers it's also helpful if you give them more responsibility.

Maintaining Emotional Closeness During Military Separation

One woman whose husband was deployed during the Gulf War felt "so distant" from her husband. She found it harder than she expected to maintain closeness. Her feelings are typical. Below are several ideas to help your family stay close when distance separates you.

  • Send care packages.
  • Send inexpensive gifts that have special meaning.
  • Make phone calls when possible.
  • Send audio cassettes with family members' voices.
  • Send e-mail when possible.
  • Exchange photographs through mail or e-mail.
  • Send newspaper clippings, magazines, books, and other publications.
  • Send frequent handwritten letters.

Handling Reunions After Separation

As difficult as separation can be, reunion can be just as difficult. The longer the separation, the more likely the returning spouse will experience a difficult readjustment. He or she often expects family members to be the same, then is rudely awakened when it turns out things - and people -- have changed.

Reunions can be especially difficult when the veteran faced constant danger or bad living conditions. Witnessing the death and injury of others, both friends and enemies, is always traumatic. Some veterans react with antisocial behavior or depression. Many experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can include harrowing nightmares, reliving of traumatic events, guilt, sleep disturbance, and exaggerated startle response. These conditions can make it very difficult for a person to return to normal family life, and family members need to be extremely patient and supportive.

Becoming reacquainted and readjusted can also be a happy and exciting time. Take some time to enjoy one another. Having fun together can relieve some of the tension you may be experiencing.

Suggestions for the Returning Spouse

  • Ease your way back into the family. Don't force your way back in.
  • Don't try to take over family finances too quickly.
  • Don't immediately try to take over the disciplinarian role.
  • Don't spoil your children with material things.
  • Surprise your spouse with a special gift.
  • Expect your spouse to have changed.
  • Be aware that your children may not be comfortable with you at first.
  • Plan a special activity with each child.

Suggestions for the Spouse Left at Home

  • Be sensitive to the feelings and disorientation of your husband or wife.
  • Don't expect your spouse to tell you everything he/she has experienced.
  • Let your spouse tell you things in his/her own time.
  • Be aware that your spouse may daydream and have a hard time concentrating at times.
  • Realize that readjustment may be a difficult time for your spouse. Be patient.

Dealing with Other Military-Related Issues

Military families face not only the threat of military separation, but also frequent moves to new locations. More than 60% of all active-duty families have spent less than two years at their current location. Although many enjoy the adventure or moving frequently, moving can be particularly difficult on children and teens. It's hard for them to leave their friends and start over somewhere else. Below is a list of things children and teens can do to make each move a more positive experience.

  • Make a list of "What do I want to do before I leave?"
  • Make a list of favorite places you want to visit one last time.
  • Ask yourself, "Is there somewhere I want to go or something I want to try before I leave?"
  • Try a new restaurant.
  • Have a party.
  • Take pictures of your friends and your favorite places.
  • Hang out with your friends.
  • Find out as much as you can about your new hometown.
  • Gather your friends' addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses and use them. Your friends will want to hear from you even though you may be far away.
  • Remember that despite the challenges of moving often, you're experiencing more places and a more adventurous life than most people.

Written by Jeremy Boyle, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

Helpful Websites

References

  1. Air Force Crossroads (AFC). Predeployment guide: A tool for coping.
  2. Black, W. G. (1993). Military induced family separation: A stress reduction intervention. Social Work, 38(3), 273-280
  3. Jones, V. B. (1992, July). How to keep a military family closeEnsign, 66. 
  4. Krum, D. (1993, February). I have a questionEnsign, 29-32. 
  5. Long, L. T. (1991, April). We are all enlistedEnsign, 38-41. 
  6. Murray, J, S. (2002). Helping children cope with separation during war. Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing, 7(3), 127-130.
  7. Rundell, J. R., & Ursano, R. (1996). Psychiatric responses to war trauma. In R. J. Ursano and A. E. Norwood (Eds.), Emotional aftermath of the Persian Gulf War: Veterans, families, communities, nations (43-70). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
  8. Yerks, S. A., & Holloway, H. C. (1996). War and homecomings: The stressors of war and returning from war. In R. J. Ursano and A. E. Norwood (Eds.), Emotional aftermath of the Persian Gulf War: Veterans, families, communities, nations (43-70). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.