Since September 11, 2001, more than two million troops have been deployed to a war zone (i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan) (Strengthening our Military Families, 2011). The duration of deployment varies and can last longer than 12 months in some instances. The number of deployments also varies and can tally up for service members during their time in service.
If you work with military families your chances of working with a family that has experienced or is about to experience a deployment is highly likely. Deployment is not as simple as mommy or daddy going away for awhile.
Stages of Deployment
It’s useful to know that deployment is a cycle and not an event. There are essentially four stages of deployment and each stage presents challenges and opportunities for families. By understanding the basics of the deployment cycle, early interventionists are in a better position to recognize deployment challenges and help families. Following is a brief review of each stage, including common emotional reactions and ways early interventionists can support families.
Pre-deployment – This stage begins with the notice or warning of a service member’s deployment. At this time families may experience feelings of shock or disbelief, stress about the pending deployment and anticipation of possible loss, as well as denial. As the deployment approaches the service member’s time typically involves increased training and long hours away from home. At this point in the cycle it is helpful for families to get their affairs in order and have discussions about what they expect of each other during the deployment.
EI TIPS – Early interventionists must recognize that this is a trying time for the entire family. Scheduled visits may change and priorities you were previously working on with the family may be placed on the back burner. Prior to the deployment it is helpful to take pictures and make videos of the deploying spouse interacting with the children, as those can be looked at and used during the deployment.
Deployment – At this stage, the service member is gone and the family may experience mixed emotions from grief to relief. They may feel disorientated and overwhelmed with taking on responsibilities of both parents. The stay at home spouse may have sleep difficulties, feel lonely or abandoned and might be anxious about doing all that needs to be done. Depending upon the deployment, the service member may or may not be able to contact the family regularly. Gradually, the family establishes new routines and figures out ways to cope and gain an increases sense of confidence and independence.
EI TIPS – During the deployment early interventionists can support the family by listening, providing emotional support, and recognizing that time during visits may be spend discussing how the family is coping, how the service member is doing, as well as addressing the debate of what to share with the deployed service member (e.g., “Do I share the results of the new evaluation?” “Do I share details about new milestones the child achieved/or has not achieved?”). During the deployment young children may demonstrate a variety of challenging behaviors, such as being more fussy around eating, having less energy or interest in things, having more tantrums, acting out, being sad, angry or more affectionate and clingy. It’s important to remember that infants and toddlers experience the stress of deployment too.
Reunion – The reunion cycle is when the service member returns home. As you might imagine, there is great excitement about the return. However, there is also apprehension about giving up newly established independence and worry about the affects of the deployment on the service member. This time might also be interrupted by changes in actual return date and the subsequent need to put reunion plans on hold.
EI TIPS – Early interventionists can help families by being supportive and encouraging them to take the time they need. You might also help the family understand their child’s reactions. Infants and toddlers typically need more time to reconnect; they may even cry when reunited with mommy or daddy.
Reintegration – Not to minimize the challenges associated with the other stages of deployment, but this stage can be even more challenging. It’s after the reunion honeymoon and includes reconnecting and reestablishing roles and responsibilities and understanding the effects of the deployment. During the service members time away the family made changes and these changes may be new and different for the returning service member. Service members have to learn how their spouse managed the children and the home in their absence and the spouse has to acknowledge and respect the conditions the service member endured.
EI TIPS – Early interventionists must recognize and be respectful of the roller coaster of emotions the family may be experiencing. During reintegration early intervention visits might be canceled or rescheduled several times. It is important to ensure the family takes the time they need to get to know one another again.
Negotiating the challenges of deployment is not easy.
A family may face a roller coaster of emotions. As an interventionist, you can help military families positively cope with the deployment experience by first understanding the unique stages of the deployment cycle.
What challenges have you faced with supporting military families before, during, or after deployment? What strategies or resources have you found helpful?
Strengthening our military families: Meeting America’s commitment. (January 2011). www.whitehouse.gov. Accessed from http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2011/0111_initiative/strengthening_our_military_january_2011.pdf (PDF, New Window)
Naomi Younggren, PhD, is the Comprehensive System of Personnel Development (CSPD) Coordinator for the Department of Defense Army Educational and Developmental Intervention Services (EDIS) Early Intervention Programs, an adjunct early childhood faculty member with Central Texas College – Europe Campus, and an independent Early Childhood Consultant focusing on early intervention and preschool processes and best practices. Naomi’s 30 years of experience in early childhood special education include being a direct provider working with children with disabilities and their families in early intervention and preschool programs, providing technical assistance, authoring early intervention handbooks and training materials, and serving in a program development and leadership capacity. Her primary focus areas include authentic assessment, IFSP and preschool IEP development, natural environments and inclusion, family-centered practices, home visiting, service delivery models, adult learning, and applying the Child Outcomes Summary (COS) for measuring outcomes.