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5 tips to manage separation for military families

1st Sgt. Doranda Denetclaw, a senior enlisted advisor assigned to 528th Hospital Center, 1st Medical Brigade, 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, III Corps, U.S. Forces Command, holds her daughter after returning to Fort Bliss, Texas, October 23, 2019, after a nine-month deployment to Iraq in support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. (U.S. Army photo by Pvt. Matthew Marcellus) 1st Sgt. Doranda Denetclaw, a senior enlisted advisor assigned to 528th Hospital Center, 1st Medical Brigade, 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, III Corps, U.S. Forces Command, holds her daughter after returning to Fort Bliss, Texas, October 23, 2019, after a nine-month deployment to Iraq in support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. (U.S. Army photo by Pvt. Matthew Marcellus)

When a service member deploys, the family and friends they leave behind have to adjust every part of their lives. They take on added roles in the family, adjust schedules, and find new ways to keep in touch with the service member. The Military Health System and other organizations have put together resources and programs to help ease this time of adjustment.

The Uniformed Services University for Health Sciences devotes an entire field of study to this issue. The Center for Deployment Psychology teaches military and civilian providers about deployment and its effects. According to David Riggs, Ph.D., the Center’s executive director, education begins by changing how the public looks at deployment.

“We've really started to think about deployment as a cycle of preparing for deployment, experiencing the deployment, and then re-engaging with the family when they return,” Riggs said. “Families experience stress before a deployment, then when the service member is gone, and then again when the service member returns, so it's an ongoing issue.”

Riggs sees deployment as a cycle that requires care throughout.

“Separation anxiety is typically thought of as when parents drop their child off at school for the first time, and the kid gets anxious,” Riggs explained. “Deployment is different because your parent or loved one is now thousands of miles away.”

Military children can feel the effects of deployments more deeply, especially if the parent at home is also feeling its effects.

“For example,” Riggs said, “if I deploy and my wife is really stressed out, depressed, or very anxious, that's a double whammy for the kids. So, the non-deploying parent’s ability to cope or ability to reach out and use resources is really, really important.”

Riggs listed several resources and ideas that families can use to manage deployment stress:

1. Find your people.

“One of the things that helps the family socialize is an informal support system,” Riggs said. “Link up with other families who are dealing with deployment or friends that can offer support.”

Riggs said families with people around them who are willing to provide support through deployments have a better chance at good mental health. When parents add new roles after their service members leave, a support system becomes essential to managing the stress that results.

2. Find creative ways to keep in touch.

“Not being able to share with the service member becomes a hurdle,” Riggs noted, “particularly for children as they move through their life experiences and aren’t able to share with mom or dad in the same way.”

Finding ways to keep in touch with deployed service members can be a lifeline for all involved. Families should try to set reasonable goals. How will they talk and how often? What kinds of ongoing activities – like reading a book to kids – will they try to work into their chats? Service members could search out toys or books that offer the option of voice recording so kids can listen at low points. Human Resources Performance by CHAMP, another division of the University, has more materials on how to get creative with communication during deployment.

3. Know that each deployment can be different.

“One of the ‘traps’ that we sometimes see families fall into is that they got through the last [deployment], so this one will be easier,” Riggs said. “And it might be easier, but it's certainly going to be different. Sometimes different can make it more complicated.”

No two deployments are the same. There may be changes in the way the service member deploys. Locations change, as do communication options. As children grow up, their needs during deployment will also change. Riggs suggests being flexible and leaning on the support system when flexibility isn’t enough. The University also posts suggestions for being flexible during deployment.

4. Stay informed with online resources.

Online resources available through the Department of Defense help families deal with the deployment of children, spouses, and other loved ones. These resources don’t replace health care providers. They provide a starting point to seeking care.

Military OneSource is a DoD-funded program with information on all aspects of military life at no cost to active duty, National Guard, and Reserve component members, veterans, and their families. Military Kids Connect is an online community for military children ages 6-17. More resources can be found through the TRICARE website for deployment.

5. Talk to a health care provider.

“Beneficiaries are eligible for counseling or therapy for anxiety and stress through TRICARE,” Riggs made sure to note. “The challenge then becomes finding providers in the community who both accept TRICARE and are sensitive to the needs and unique stressors that come with deployment.”

If all other resources fail, the health care provider is there to help in dealing with the mental effects of deployment. Providers and other resources can be found on the TRICARE website.

Visit the Center for Deployment Psychology’s website for more information on how Riggs and his team are helping educate providers on the unique world of the military family.

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

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