Supporting Families Affected by Deployment: New Possibilities for Military Families

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

Over the past many years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have been left wondering what is being done to support, really support, our military families that remain behind as well as our soldiers that have gone through and continue to go through military deployment.  I came across this study and was both delighted and hopeful to learn about a new program that targets military families in a comprehensive and thoughtful way to ease the stress of deployment.  Read on to find out about it.

Military deployment, including that due to the current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), can bring about a lot of stress for both parents and children and this stress may look different based on the stage of deployment: pre-deployment, deployment, or reintegration.  Gerwitz and colleagues (2011) outline ways in which a new program may give families much needed support as they deal with deployment stress.

The Parent Management Training-Oregon model (PMTO) includes research-based parenting strategies that the authors state can be adapted for military families to help reduce stress in the face of deployment.  Across time, the PMTO model has been shown to positively impact families in a variety of ways, such as improved child behaviors, co-parenting, and marital satisfaction as well as decreased maternal depression, parent and child substance use, and financial stress. The authors have received extensive NIH funding to extend the services available in the After Deployment Adaptive Parenting Tools Program (ADAPT) to include a military-specific PMTO model.

The model includes several key strategies and the authors include them in three broad goals for military families: 1) increase family resiliency; 2) address family stress through each phase of the deployment cycle; and 3) help parents learn emotion regulation techniques to become more effective in parenting.

The authors suggest using the family’s strengths to help them build skills for effectively coping with the stresses of deployment.  A goal-oriented approach would be emphasized to keep the family forward-focused and moving in a positive direction.

To address deployment-related family stress, strategies would be taught that help parents to keep up with routines, rules, and rituals so that their child’s daily lives can feel as safe and predictable as possible.  Parents would learn how to help their children cope with both routine and bigger stressors through problem-solving, setting family goals, and having family meetings. Parents would also learn about their children’s particular stage of development and how the world is viewed and dealt with based on this stage, which could aid parents in helping their children deal with stress.  The importance of keeping transitions to a low during times of deployment would be emphasized since children typically become more stressed as the number of changes in their daily lives goes up.  Finally, parents would be taught how to maintain a united parenting front and to keep common parenting goals so that the couple can better manage shifts in parenting during the deployment cycle.

To increase emotion regulation in parents, they would be given individual and couple support in managing their own stress.  Also, parents would learn how to keep tabs on their emotions as they parent.  For example, they would learn how to keep calm and neutral while working with their children on following directions.  Finally, parents would be taught how to increase positive parenting techniques and decrease critical or coercive ones.

The authors suggest that the PMTO model could be offered in a web-based, group format, making it highly accessible to military families.  They go on to state that it does not replace the need for more intensive services for soldiers and families that undergo severe stress, such as substance abuse, serious injury or death, and PTSD.  Overall, the model appears to be a promising step toward giving military families the support that they need and deserve as they cope with the difficulties of deployment.

Source: Gerwitz, A. H., Erbes, C. R., Polusny, M. A., Forgatch, M. S., & DeGarmo, D. S. (2011). Helping Military Families Through the Deployment Process: Strategies to Support Parenting, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 42 (1), 56-62. DOI 10.1037/a0022345