How Can Military Families Cope with Deployment of Loved Ones

By Robert Dingman, EdD, Director of Military and Veteran Psychology and Train Vets to Treat Vets September 18, 2014

When we hear the word "deployment," we think of the military servicemen and servicewomen bravely fighting overseas. We imagine their struggles and hardships as they face situations that test them physically and mentally.

But what about their family members at home? As the service members endure trauma on the battlefield, family members struggle with their own challenges on the homefront. Adults must take on extra responsibilities left behind by the missing family member, while children must learn to cope with one parent at home.

The family goes through as many as five different phases of a deployment cycle. These include pre-deployment, when they must plan for the upcoming separation; deployment, when they adjust to the family member's absence; sustainment, which sets in about one month into the deployment after the reality of the loss has set in; redeployment, which involves the excitement and nervousness of the anticipated homecoming; and post-deployment, the adjustment period after the service member returns home.

The way in which each family experiences this cycle, and goes through the deployment process, will vary. However, there are some general do's and don'ts that will make this process more manageable.


Do

Do mobilize your belief systems

Families who adapt successfully to deployment understand the importance of mobilizing their belief systems when their loved one leaves. That means maintaining a positive attitude throughout the deployment and managing the deployment in an optimistic way. Yes, this time will be challenging, but it is a challenge that you and your family can manage and overcome if you believe in your own resiliency.

Do be flexible

Learn to adapt to a new environment. At home, this new environment may involve taking on new household responsibilities. If her husband deploys, a wife or a teenage son might have to start mowing the lawn. Try to distribute these responsibilities before the loved one leaves---and be ready to make some adjustments when the deployment period begins.

Do communicate frequently with the deployed loved one

Your family should use technology to your advantage and stay committed to being connected. When you talk to your deployed loved one, share concrete details of your day, not just broad overviews.

Parents at home with their children should work especially hard to make sure their kids communicate little details of their lives to their deployed mom or dad. These details will help the deployed family member feel "in the loop" and will allow him or her to offer parental advice, even from thousands of miles away.

Do make use of your network

Families who belong to church groups or military support groups should take advantage of these networks and use the resources they offer to manage their stress. Often, these groups include families who are going through the same deployment situation and can offer advice based on their own experiences.

Do stay active

Families who maintain active, healthy lifestyles will not get bogged down in grief. Those who stay busy, with meaningful activities such as work or sports teams, will find that the deployment time period passes by much more quickly.


Don't

Do not overburden your children with your worries

As parents at home undergoing the stress of deployment, it is important that you do not share all of your worries and concerns with your children.

Maintain your authority as the parental figure in the household, even if you are feeling overwhelmed by your spouse's absence. Childhood passes by too quickly as it is, so give your children time to enjoy it.

Do not slack off as a parent

Parents managing children on the homefront should become more disciplined, not less, when their spouses are away. They should do all they can to support and comfort their children, but they should also maintain clear boundaries so that children do not channel their grief by misbehaving or acting out at home.

Do not isolate yourself

Surround yourself with family and friends. Lean on loved ones for support and guidance. Consider seeking the help of a mental health professional if you need advice on how to cope with the emotions you experience before, during or after deployment.

Do not forget that homecoming is a process

Homecoming is a magical time, but when a deployed service member returns home, all does not return to normal. There is an adjustment period not only for the deployed service member but also for the family. Everyone must settle into their old roles and routines--and this will not happen overnight.

Do not worry

Don't sweat the small stuff. The deployment cycle is difficult to go through, but you are not alone in your struggle. Ask for help when you need it, and don't let worrying get in the way of the wonderful memories that you can create during this challenging time.


Summary

The most important thing to remember is that your family is experiencing this together, not in isolation. Whether your family consists of a spouse and children or the close friends you grew up with, lean on that family for support, and help them to get through the obstacles that you are facing together.

Military families are a resilient bunch, accustomed to moving from place to place and adapting to new environments and unfamiliar social scenes. Embrace this deployment as a challenge that you can overcome, a battle that you can win. At the end of it, you will emerge stronger than ever.

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