Tips to help military families cope with stress

view of someone in military boots standing behind child
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While family members of our military service members do not actively serve, they do have a very important job – holding down the fort. Military service members put their lives on the line to protect and serve our country while their families adapt, miss their loved ones, and support them from home.

In 2018, my brother-in-law was deployed to Germany for 9 months and left behind his wife and son. While the deployment was shorter than some, it still took a toll on my sister and their 2-year-old son, who both missed him dearly. Having one family member on the other side of the world can be extremely stressful, but luckily my sister was able to adapt and relied on family members to help her during those nine months.

Traditionally the United States military included service members who were largely young and single, however, today military members with families and partners outnumber single military members (Weinstock, n.d.).

  • Today there are 2.1 million military personnel and 2.5 million family members of active-duty military personnel, including spouses, children, and adult dependents.
  • 47.6% of military personnel are married and roughly 32% are married with children.
  • 5.7% of military personnel are single with children (Department of Defense, 2020).

While family separations are a normal part of military life, deployments can be periods of increased stress for military families. Military families often face frequent relocation, long and irregular work hours, fear of war, and fear of deployment (Russo & Fallon, 2015). When a family loses the active presence of a parent during military deployment, family members can start to feel isolated, unsupported, and anxious. Children may struggle with the deployment of a parent and start to show behavioral and emotional problems (Mustillo, Wadsworth, & Lester, 2016). Spouses also face the challenges of being the sole provider physically, emotionally, and sometimes financially (Russo & Fallon, 2015).  Marital conflicts are common in military families during deployment. 

Some families are also at risk for increased vulnerabilities like families with little contact with extended family and the military community, medical issues, and emotional/behavioral problems. Younger families and families facing the first deployment may also struggle to manage stress in a healthy way or navigate through this stressful time (National Center for PTSD, 2021).

For military families, stress is a common occurrence, but that does not make it easy to deal with. A large portion of being in a military family is learning to cope with stress and being resilient (Russo & Fallon, 2015). Here are some ways military families (especially parents) can cope with stress and adapt to a loved one’s deployment:

Take care of yourself

Self-care is vital when a family member is deployed. Take a few moments and think about what helps you feel strong and calm. Each person’s self-care is different but make sure the activity you choose is healthy for yourself and your family. One may choose to exercise or go on a walk. Others may choose to visit an art gallery, plant flowers, or take a long bath.

Seek help

There is nothing wrong with reaching out for help, especially if you are struggling for more than four to six weeks. Professional help can be easily accessed for military members and their families as every military base has a family support center or community service center where family members can access counseling, resource referrals, and crisis intervention services. Asking for help does not mean you are weak and in fact, it shows just how strong you can be for your loved ones.

Utilize your support team

When your loved one is deployed, it is important to utilize your support team. This may include your family, your loved one’s family, friends, other military spouses, or the military community. Your support team can be there for you during this stressful time by lending an open year, helping with childcare or household duties, and even offering resources for you to succeed (Rossetto, 2015).

The military community often has support groups for military family members that provide the opportunity to share your feelings, make connections with others who may feel the same, and reduce your stress. The military community also provides resources like counseling, childcare, and extra support for the entire family during this stressful time.

Continue normal routines

In the face of stress, maintaining similar routines can help family members to feel a sense of control (Spagnola & Fiese, 2007). For children especially, routines provide consistency and structure that help them adjust to a family member’s deployment. Try not to stray away from normal homework times and bedtimes. This may be hard when one parent is missing, so consider asking an older child to help keep the family on track.

Do not be afraid to add things to your family’s normal routine. For example, plan to video-call your loved one once a week or create a weekly family event like a movie night. If you have children, you can even set time aside once a day for family members to journal or write letters to your loved ones.

Communicate openly and honestly

In every family, communication is key but for military families – communication has an even bigger role. Before deployment, it is critical to talk as a family and share feelings, worries, and information about the family’s next steps. Encourage open and honest expressions of worries, feelings, and questions for every single family member. If you have children, what and how much you share with your children is up to the parents’ discretion. Be aware of your child’s developmental levels, their ability to understand, and how they handle stress when sharing hard or bad news (Houston, Pfefferbaum, Sherman, Melson, & Brand, 2013). However, it is important to let your child know that the family member is making a valuable contribution to their country and family. During deployment, utilize modern communication methods to keep in touch with the deployed loved one. For example, video chats, letters, emails, and phone calls are great to communicate via long distances.

Author: Kayli Worthey, Human Services Programming Administration Graduate, Child and Family Life Center Graduate Assistant, Eastern Illinois University

References

Department of Defense. (2012). 2011 Demographics report: Profile of the Military Community. Published by the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Military Community and Family Policy), under contract with ICF International, Washington, DC. Available: http://www.icfi.com/workforce.

Houston, J.B., Pfefferbaum, B., Sherman, M., Melson, A., & Brand, M. (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 & Trauma, 18(2), 103–119. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.eiu.edu/10.1080/15325024.2012.684576

Mustillo, S., Wadsworth, S.M., & Lester, P. (2016). Parental Deployment and Well-Being in Children: Results From a New Study of Military Families. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 24(2), 82–91. https://doi.org/10.1177/1063426615598766

National Center for PTSD. (2021). How deployment stress affects children and families: Research findings. National Center for PTSD. Retrieved April 8, 2022, from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/specific/deploy_stress_family.asp#five

Rossetto, K.R. (2015). Developing Conceptual Definitions and Theoretical Models of Coping in Military Families During Deployment. Journal of Family Communication, 15(3), 249–268. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.eiu.edu/10.1080/15267431.2015.1043737

Russo, T. J. & Fallon, M. A. (2015). Coping with stress: Supporting the needs of military families and their children. Early Childhood Education Journal 43, 407–416 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-014-0665-2

Spagnola, M., & Fiese, B. H. (2007). Family routines and rituals: A context for development in the lives of young children. Infants & Young Children, 20(4), 284–299. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.IYC.0000290352.32170.5a

Weinstock, M. (n.d.). Military families and deployment. Uniformed Services University – Center for Deployment Psychology. Retrieved April 5, 2022 from https://deploymentpsych.org/disorders/deployment-main