Staff Voices: How Can We Recognize and Help Parents of Service Members?

Staff Voices: How Can We Recognize and Help Parents of Service Members?

When we think about the families of service members, we often picture a spouse, perhaps several children, struggling to cope with military moves, long absences, and the upheaval of the deployment cycle. But other family members struggle to adjust to military service as well. Parents of Service Members are an unrecognized group, who often don’t receive the attention they deserve for devotedly buoying their sons and daughters throughout the deployment cycle. These mothers and fathers are rarely validated for what they go through or thanked for the endless support they give their sons and daughters.  As a result, their own self-care can be neglected.  Although some testimonials and informal guides have been published by parents of Service Members, few resources by mental health professionals have been tailored just for them and their unique needs and concerns.

Saying good-bye to a son or daughter as they go off to war, not knowing if they will return, is a unique and heart-wrenching experience. Yet parents of service members live through this profound experience—often several times during their child’s military career, rarely complaining. They wait anxiously and provide support to their deployed child from afar without asking for help or even sharing with others about their worries and challenges.

Even after deployment, parents can feel at a loss about how to help a struggling son or daughter reintegrate, find a new job if they’re getting out of the military, cope with lingering mental health conditions like PTSD, TBI or depression, or deal with family problems or unhealthy habits like over-drinking, dangerous driving of vehicles (especially motorcycles), and obsessive internet surfing. They may not understand why their previously outgoing son or daughter who has returned from combat is now refusing to do things with them or other family members. They are left wondering why they prefer to be left alone or want to spend time with their military buddies instead of relatives.  These kinds of behaviors can lead to hurt feelings, disappointment and other reactions as communication lines between them and their military child become strained or broken.

Parents often subsume their own needs to that of their children, and this is especially true for military parents. Too often they fail to take care of themselves because they are focused on the needs of their child. They often feel guilty if they’re not concentrating on their Service Member or if they are unable to handle all the other “balls in the air” of life, which may include tending to other children, a job and/or a spouse. Mothers and fathers of Service Members may feel compelled to sacrifice their own well-being for the good of their military child, which they justify because their son or daughter has put himself or herself in harm’s way. For these parents, this translates into “sucking it up” themselves and not asking for help. It means dedicating themselves to the “mission” of being on call to help their Service Member or even the larger unit or military whenever needed.  Yet this picture can lead to distress, burnout and fatigue.  For example, when a Service Member returns with a serious injury or disability, parents face an emotional roller coaster ride in dealing with this life-changing event for not only their military son or daughter but the whole family.  They may experience a range of feelings including shock, sadness, grief, anger, hopelessness and emptiness that may go unrecognized and spiral into deeper problems.

Unfortunately, providers at military treatment facilities and Veterans Affairs hospitals can’t usually treat parents of Service Members because they are not considered dependents.  Thus, they can fall through the cracks when it comes to receiving mental health care from qualified providers who know about the military and can provide support related to their child’s odyssey of deployment, and distress they may be experiencing.

How can we outreach to the hundreds of thousands of Service Member parents whose own needs and concerns are commonly not recognized?  Are you able to provide therapy to them where you work? What counseling resources and tools can benefit the mothers and fathers of our troops? Join in this discussion by responding to this blog.

Dr. Paula Domenici is the Director of Training Programs at the Center for Deployment Psychology, where she oversees civilian and military training courses and develops workshops for these audiences.