One unique aspect of many military families’ lives is the experience of deployment – a time when a Service member leaves home for an extended period of time. In this final Staff Perspective post during Military Family Appreciation Month, I will explore the importance of helping children navigate deployment by maintaining communication and connection with the deployed Service member.
Last year, as my family prepared for my husband’s upcoming Navy deployment, I was once again left to wonder (and worry) about how my two children would maintain connection with their father while he was gone and what impact the deployment would have on them. During this time, my children were teenagers in the midst of high school and old enough to effectively use all the technology which existed at the touch of a button on their smart phones. I hoped because of their ages and developmental levels that maintaining contact with my husband would be fairly easy for them. They had already experienced three previous deployments, but this was the first time they would experience it as teenagers. While I hoped for the best, I also kept in mind that teenagers can sometimes be complicated.
I reflected back on one of my husband’s earlier deployments ten years prior. At that time, my boys had just started elementary school and communication with deployed Service members was mostly through mail, email, and sporadic phone calls if/when a ship pulled into port. However, since my boys were young, their attention spans for phone calls were limited and mail took a long time to be delivered. During that time, we took advantage of a wonderful program called United Through Reading (unitedthroughreading.org/). In the United Through Reading program, they record Service members reading story books and then mail the video to the families for the children to watch. It was so impactful for my boys (and bought me some quiet time in the evenings while they “read with daddy”). Another creative idea someone shared with us during that time that we utilized was a web site called Monk-eMail. On this site you could decorate a cartoon monkey and then give the monkey a “script” to read. The message is sent through email and the monkey reads the message to the recipient using a silly voice. When my husband sent these to us, it turned out to be a perfect medium for communication with two young boys who found it hysterical. Both of these were amazingly helpful at maintaining connection between my children and their father during the many months of separation.
Since that deployment over a decade ago, methods for communication between deployed Service members and their families back home have evolved significantly due to advances in technology. Depending on the type and location of a deployment, there are many options available for families to use. Now, in addition to the more traditional communication methods such as mail and email, it is now possible for a Service member to communicate using Skype, FaceTime, text messages, instant messaging, and social media status updates to stay in touch with their loved ones. But do these methods of communication help children and families maintain emotional connection and lead to better outcomes for children following a parent’s extended absence? Not necessarily.
Research in this area points to communication quality being more important to children’s outcomes than communication frequency or method.
In one study (Houston et al., 2013) researchers interviewed children and spouses of Service members deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. They found that some of the newer technologies allowed for more frequent contact, but that more frequent contact did not necessarily lead to more connection between the child and parent. In fact, they found just the opposite. Frequent texting with the deployed parent was linked to children experiencing negative outcomes such as feeling upset, stressed, and angry. Researchers hypothesized that some of the briefer and more frequent contacts may not carry the emotional cues that help children connect with their deployed parent. Also, the deployed parent may only have sporadic access to these methods of communication and might use them when they have limited time or when feeling stressed leading to messages which could be misunderstand by children.
Another study (Wilson et al., 2015) found that quality as opposed to frequency of communication between parent and child during deployment played a large part in creating more positive outcomes for children post-deployment. They found that if deployed parents participated in and encouraged open communication with their children during deployment, the children experienced fewer behavioral problems and were observed to have more pro-social behaviors during the reunion period. This open communication consisted of the parent communicating with the child about a wide range of topics and showing interest in the children’s views.
No matter the child’s age, finding ways to help a parent and child communicate is a critical aspect of helping them maintain emotional connection during periods of separation. Being aware of research, talking with friends and family, as well as discovering resources that exist can all be very helpful. New developments in technology may play a part in maintaining that connection as well, but families need to discover what works best for their children.
During this last deployment, I accessed many of the resources available as I searched for ideas and information on parent-child communication. Sites such as Military One Source (https://www.militaryonesource.mil/) and Military Kids Connect (https://militarykidsconnect.dcoe.mil/) provided a lot of great ideas for communication strategies with teenagers. In the end, my children never used Face Time, texting, or instant messaging to communicate with their father - they mostly communicated through letters, emails, care packages and they even sent my husband one last Monk-eMail for old time’s sake.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
April Thompson, LCSW, is a clinical social worker currently working as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer at the CDP at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland.
Houston, B. J., Pfefferbaum, B., Sherman, M. D., Melson, A. G. & Brand, M. W. (2013) Family communication across the military deployment experience: Child and spouse report of communication frequency and quality and associated emotions, behaviors, and reactions, Journal of Loss and Trauma, 18:2, 103-119. doi:10.1080/15325024.2012.684576
Wilson, S. R., Chernichky, S. M., Wilkum, K. & Owlett, J. S. (2014) Do family communication patterns buffer children from difficulties associated with a parent's military deployment? Examining deployed and at-home parents’ perspectives, Journal of Family Communication, 14:1, 32-52. doi:10.1080/15267431.2013.857325
Military Kids Connect: militarykidsconnect.dcoe.mil/
Military One Source: www.militaryonesource.mil/
United Through Reading: unitedthroughreading.org/