Military families do not need statistics, news reports, or scholarly research to appreciate the unique struggles they face. Still, each of us—military families included—benefit from efforts to bring more clarity, understanding, and most importantly, verifiably useful ideas and actions that make life’s challenges a bit less challenging. In this post, we aim to show how positive approaches to applied family communication can strengthen the capacities of military families to manage pressures to their relationships.
The Changing Challenges for Military Families
In the 1970s, when the armed forces became “all-volunteer,” family matters started to become more central to military matters overall, reflecting the lives of those who serve. There are now more military spouses and children than there are service members (Clever and Segal 13).
The most ubiquitous set of challenges for military families concern the impacts of deployment and reintegration on individual family members and the family as a whole. There are three stages of military deployment: pre-deployment (when the service member receives deployment orders), deployment (when the service member departs), and post-deployment (when the service member returns and reintegrates into civilian and family life). Each stage presents its own stresses on each family member.
Steven Wilson and colleagues found that during pre-deployment elementary school children and teens may experience feelings of anger. Their research also showed that during pre-deployment children express fears related to abandonment, as well as worries related to how the non-deployed parent will cope with the pending deployment.
During the period of deployment, researchers have observed mixed reactions among family members as they establish new routines, work out new responsibilities, and take on new roles within the family. Preschoolers may appear more “clingy” and elementary school children may worry about the permanency of the separation. Teens may express frustration about being overburdened by new responsibilities, but may also exhibit greater self-confidence and pride because of their success in new roles.
The post-deployment, or reunion, phase is also a time of mixed emotions. Preschool children are excited, but also show a need for reassurance. Elementary school children show excitement as well. They also show a strong desire for attention. For adolescents, the reunion phase is a time of relief, but they may also still feel anger about the situation.
Why Positive Approaches?
Positive approaches to applied family communication are particularly well suited for taking up issues related to deployment and reintegration. Rather than focusing on negatives (what the family is doing “wrong”), positive approaches emphasize empowerment, building greater capacity and potential for all involved to continuously improve family relationships—not merely identifying what (or who) needs “fixing.” Communication scholar Thomas J. Socha writes that positive approaches to applied family communication “…focus on the role of communication and the development of positive qualities (e.g., creativity, hope, and love) that characterize creative, artful, and successful families, and also work to develop preventative measures” (Socha 317).
What do positive approaches to applied family communication actually look like? A good example is seen in Jody Koenig Kellas’ research examining the content and discursive processes exhibited by families when they jointly tell stories about the family. Kellas found that families who told stories about accomplishments as the story that best described the family were, “…more satisfied, cohesive, adaptable, and generally functional, than families who chose stressful stories to best represent the family” (384).
Overcoming stresses certainly qualify as accomplishments, and several of the families in Kellas’ study told stories of accomplishment like this. This framework of family storytelling suggests a positive, empowering model that may be helpful to military families in their efforts to “overcome stresses” presented by the challenges they face.
Karabi Acharya and colleagues examine an integrated positive approach to research and theory relevant to family and health issues in their “Gateway Behaviors” analysis. This research, developed through the Health Communication Partnership, outlines multiple contextual factors that may affect the many behavioral outcomes that lead to family and health dysfunction. In theory, it asserts that it is not efficient or effective to take a singular approach to problem solving as public health is influence by a wide range of social, economic, and cultural factors. This research looks at public peer, intra-household efficacy and family resiliency issues, using interviews, literature, demographic and health surveys, along with group meetings attended by health communicators and researchers. The authors offer another example of the role of positive approaches to applied communication in helping families and communities thrive and remain resilient during times of stress.
Positive Approaches and Military Families
Many positive approaches to applied family communication research have proven to be empowering for military families. Wilson and colleagues’ “Passport Toward Success: Description and Evaluation of a Program Designed to Help Children and Families Reconnect after a Military Deployment” is an illustrative example.
The Passport Toward Success (PTS) program is structured based on models of resiliency. “Resiliency models identify capacities and processes that enable families to rally in time of “crisis” (Wilson et al. 226). Program participants, parent(s) and children were asked to respond to a series of pre-questions. “PTS rotates children whose military parent has recently returned from deployment through three interactive stations, where they practice skills related to coping with stress, problem-solving, and discussing feelings along with similar-age peers” (Wilson et al. 223). Each station is “focused on a specific family process and related skills crucial for resilience” (Wilson et al. 227). The stations were geared for children ages 3-17 (during participation, children were broken down by age group). Children were asked to respond to a series of questions; adolescent self-report of behavioral difficulties, adolescent reports of self-esteem and got new ideas. Scores for the “Got New Ideas” questions were particularly high, five of the six questions receiving an 85% response of either “yes” or “sort of” (Wilson et al. 242). Core strengths within the Passport Toward Success program such as the use of both quantitative and qualitative analysis from multiple sources and that data could be compared to other large-scale samples from similar research will surely have implications for future research in similar programs. Also, in keeping with the positive model of applied family communication, Wilson et al agree:
Resiliency thus does not involve “springing back” to a preexisting “normal” life that existed before deployment but rather “springing forward” and creating a new sense of “normal” by adjusting interactions to fit new conditions. (226)
Resilience refers to the “ability to withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges” (Walsh 1). Family resiliency models (Buzzaneil, 2010; Patterson 2002; Walsh, 2003) assume that events such as a parent’s military deployment or reunion impact the entire family.
Undoubtedly, improving models by embracing integrated positive approaches as alternatives to vertical (singularly focused) programs will have implications for future research. Drawing on the positive qualities of creativity, hope and love, the PTS training was presented in a family friendly manner that engaged children in a fun and interactive learning experience. Perhaps most importantly, PTS offered military children new “tools” that they can utilize in the future. Children learned how to reduce stress through relaxation techniques and how to express their feelings through conversation.
Several researchers from the PTS program study went on to generate further research, again drawing from models of family resiliency. This time Stephen Wilson and his colleagues focused on family communication patterns (FCP) with questions asked to deployed and at-home parents rather than their children. As we take a closer look at FCP, there are two key processes that can create shared realities. Families that embrace conversation orientation will create an environment that allows children to ask questions and be part of the decision making process for the family unit as a whole. “Conversation orientation is the degree to which families create a climate where all family members are encouraged to participate in unrestrained interaction about a wide array of topics” (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 184). Families that embrace conformity orientation will create an environment rich in consensus, cooperation, interdependence, and obedience. “Conformity orientation is the degree to which family communication stresses a climate of homogeneity of attitudes, values, and beliefs” (Koerner & Fitzpatirck 184).
The focus of this study was to determine if FCP impact (positively or negatively) the degree of difficulty military children may have while a parent is deployed and/or when the deployed parent returns home. At-home parents were asked to respond to a series of questions regarding their oldest child’s behavior during deployment and upon return of the deployed parent. Deployed parents were asked to respond to questions about their oldest child’s behavior upon return from deployment. “Both deployed and at-home parents reported high levels of conversation orientation and conformity orientation in their families” (Wilson et al. 42). This study may have raised more questions than it answered. However, the study did find that families that engaged in increased conversation orientation experienced fewer difficulties and more prosocial behavior in their oldest child when compared to other military deployed families that utilized less conversation orientation” (Wilson et al. 48).
Most clear in the FCP research, is the creation of a “shared social reality” and its importance to the goal of buffering children during deployment and reintegration (Wilson et al. 34). The authors reiterate the importance for parents to understand how their communication patterns can foster or inhibit resiliency in their children. The children of military parents report high stress levels associated with worrying about their deployed parent and missing activities with them, like playing sports and doing homework together, in the deployed parent’s absence. The stress level on the at-home parent is also a key factor impacting the stress level of these children. Likewise, the renegotiation of roles within the household upon the return or reintegration of a deployed parent can be another source of stress for children.
Wilson and colleagues encourage families to create a shared social reality by spending a large amount of time talking on a variety of topics and encouraging family members to participate in family discussions. By interaction and sharing of thoughts and feelings freely, families create a “homogeneity of attitudes, values and beliefs” – a ‘we’re in this together’ bonding that offers a buffer from the stress they would normally experience during deployment. The result is family resiliency because families create a collaborative style of conflict management within their households, which according to the research by Wilson et al reduce stress. In describing the tools necessary to make this communication pattern a success, the authors point to age-appropriate disclosure, social support, and shared decision making as the foundation for “conversation orientation” to work as a practical discursive skill set for military families. (Wilson et al 35).
The integrated approach to applied family research also is supported by Wilson et al in their discussion of important factors to consider regarding family stressors in the PTS research. The authors deem stressors that result from military deployment particularly challenging when they occur at the same time as other stressors (e.g., health problems, lack of affordable child care). Resiliency models identify communications patterns and behavioral outcomes that enable families to come together in times of crisis (Wilson et al 226).
Recommendations for Moving Forward
Clearly positive approaches to applied communication theory can productively address the associated challenges of military deployment and reintegration by using resiliency models to reduce stress and dysfunction, promoting positive family functioning over time. The implications for moving forward in this area are apparent in a review of the strengths and limitations of relevant programs and in the evaluation process of the PTS research. Recommendations for moving forward include:
- Planning longer duration programs to improve access to participants will increase opportunities for data collection.
- Including more targeted facilitation training to keep children under five years old engaged in the PTS program will increase program fidelity.
- Including feedback from both deployed and non-deployed parents is important to assess the actual impact of military deployment and stress on children.
- Having observers in place provides helpful information about the effectiveness of participant engagement in communication, activities, and program facilitation, increasing program fidelity.
- Extending the program’s duration also will enhance the ability to measure long-term efficacy or self-esteem in children.
- Providing children of military families with tools to use when they experience “othering” by peers who are not members of military families, is shown to improve self-esteem. This skill set could be the result of creating a “shared social reality” within military family networks.
- Providing children of military families the opportunity to engage with other children who share their concerns and to discuss their feelings among peers also is shown to have a positive effect on self-esteem.
Ultimately, moving toward a positive integrative model of applied communication research is crucial. This will allow researchers and theorists to explore the broad impact of behavioral outcomes across multiple areas, which may be influenced by socio-economic and cultural conditions. Although cycles of military deployment create significant stressors, many children and families demonstrate tremendous resilience in the face of such stress. Further examination of the role of disclosure, uncertainty, and how parents might best function and communicate with their children to promote family resiliency is important to helping families maintain healthy relationships during times of military deployment and reintegration.
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Wilson, Steven R., et al. “Passport Toward Success: Description And Evaluation Of A Program Designed To Help Children And Families Reconnect After A Military Deployment.” Journal Of Applied Communication Research 39.3 (2011): 223-249. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.