Preparing the Family for Separation
eMilitary has conducted several surveys over the years of enlisted spouses, retirees and other members of the extended military family. One critical theme which emerged from all of these communications is that deployments now may be different from those in the past (Vietnam, WWI, WWII) but they are still difficult, still full of anxiety and stress.
In times past, military families waited in silence for rare letters via "snail" mail from their soldiers on the battlefield. No news was good news, but the imaginations of those left behind kept the stress levels high.
Due to technology, family members can be on a 'virtual' battlefield with their loved ones. Pictures reporting them missing in action, as prisoners of war or in a battle come back in "real time" This is beyond the normal range of family stressors that military members experienced in the past.
On the other hand, families may derive some comfort or sense of relief from seeing pictures of their loved ones if they're doing okay. But the flip side, is the added stress caused by the possibility of getting bad (as well as good) news from the media. Another new stressor is the possibility that chemical or biological warfare may be used against family members. Family members may come back looking healthy, as in the first Gulf War. But the ambiguity of not knowing if their health is damaged adds another layer of stress for families.
The military breaks down separation in three stages: pre-deployment, deployment and post-deployment.
Most of us can expect to feel a strong sense of loss or even anger when hit with a separation. We face losing the support and companionship of our spouse or loved one. We're getting a new load of responsibilities just when were probably pretty comfortable with things the way they were in our lives. It's not easy suddenly becoming a single parent, nor is it easy being so far from home and worrying about how things are going at home and with those we love. Its not unusual then to feel angry, lost or even empty. Although there are many practical things to do, it is important to understand the emotional stages or responses you and/or your loved ones will be experiencing.
Each one of us who faces a separation goes through some basic steps. You are not alone...or crazy; this is normal. By becoming aware of these stages, you'll be able to cope a little better. Fear or confusion you find yourself experiencing won't be as scary. Knowing what you might expect may help you feel more in charge at times when it is easy to feel out of control.
As soldiers prepare to deploy and leave, military families may experience:
- denial or shock - disbelief and numbness
- anger - frustration with separation demands; feeling guilty about the military, spouse, and job
- guilt - for not saying or doing more before the deployment, or children may feel they caused the departure
- depression - intense sadness, fatigue, loss of appetite, and withdrawal from the routine
- acceptance - realize and accept the situation, resolve to continue on positively, confidence in handling day-to-day living, awareness of increase in self-esteem and personal abilities
Knowing these feelings are normal and can help families cope. These stages normally occur in the order above; however, setbacks to previous stages can be triggered by a number of causes. Individual situations and types of deployment can influence the intensity and duration of each stage.
How to Manage Separation
- Take good care of yourself and stay safe.
- Make sure you eat right.
- Shop and cook for nutrition.
- Get enough rest.
- Make time for physical exercise - walk daily, join an aerobics class, jog, bowl, etc.
- Treat yourself to a special outing - dinner, a movie, a shopping trip, or a night out. You deserve it!
- Don't go on spending binges, or run up a large phone bill.
- Help manage stress by setting aside time to do something that you enjoy every day.
- Avoid trying to do everything yourself.
- Take advantage of military community support. Call people in your FRG when you need to talk.
- Contact family, friends, neighbors, and spouses of other deployed soldiers whenever you need practical or emotional support.
Talk about your feelings, doubts, and fears with a trusted friend, neighbor, coworker, or other spouses. Seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed by your emotions, or if you suspect that someone in the family is having emotional problems.
Understanding Reactions to Separation in Children -Emotional responses vary in nature and severity from child to child.
Fear: Fear may be the main reaction fear for the safety of you and your family as well as those involved. A child's picture of deployment and war may include a bomb dropped on their home. Their worries may seem unreasonable, but to them, they are quite possible. Children will hear rumors at school and may let their imaginations run wild. They may think the worst, however unrealistic it may be. Other fears may be experienced as a result of media coverage (radio, television, newspapers).
Loss of control: Military actions are something over which children have no control. Lack of control can be overwhelming and confusing. Children may grasp at any control which they can have.
Anger: Anger is not an unusual reaction. Unfortunately, anger is often expressed to those with whom children are most secure. Children may be angry at people in other countries. Children should be allowed to express their feelings during this time.
Loss of stability: Deployment interrupts the natural order of things. It is very unsettling. Stability is gone, and this is very threatening.
During the early period of child development, children are learning about object and subject permanence, discovering that objects and people continue to exist, even when they are not visually present. Communication is a key component to helping children cope with separation. Describing their feelings helps children make sense of their experiences. Children need to be confident that they have not been forgotten; that their parents will return.
Tips for Parents
Thanks to the National Association for School Psychologist for this information. Their resources can be found at http://www.schoolcounselor.org/content.cfm?L1=1000&L2=104.
- Keep routines as normal as possible
- Be honest
- Acknowledge Feelings
- Take stock of your attitude
- Pursue new interests and hobbies - keep busy
- Help children communicate with the loved one who is away - letters, e-mails, pictures
- Keep a sense of humor
- Be flexible
- Find someone to talk to
- Control the environment of your home. Limit the exposure young children (up to third grade) have to TV or overhearing discussions with your spouse or friends, especially if your child exhibits signs of high anxiety levels, such as crying, nightmares, asking the same questions repeatedly and general overall anxiousness.
- Allow for dialogue. Ask your children what they're thinking or feeling about the situation and why. Do more listening than talking. When discussing the situation, stick to the facts. Dispel rumors. Stress the seriousness of the situation without increasing their fears, so that children don't make light of it.
- Reassure your children of your commitment to their safety, as well as the commitment of other significant people (teachers, relatives, friends) who can help care for them.
- Don't project your fears onto your children. Children will reflect your level of anxiety. Monitor and regulate your level of anxiety and feelings. Remember, your children will absorb what they are expose to in their surroundings.
- Be aware of your children's non-spoken language, such as facial expressions, eyes, mood, tone and overall behavior. What they don't say is as important as what they do say.
- Counselors and teachers are willing and ready to help your children. Keep the lines of communication open.