NASP Communiqué, Vol. 37, #2
How School Psychologists
By Mark C. Pisano
Nearly 700,000 children have at least one parent in the U. S. National
Guard or Reserve (Our Military Kids, 2007). These children are in
civilian schools, very possibly in buildings where you work! Some
could be experiencing their parent’s first deployment and feeling
very alone and scared.
Military deployments have become more frequent for service
members in the Guard and Reserves and are having a significant impact on the functioning
of the service member’s family and on their reintegration into civilian life.
There are approximately 456,000 National Guard soldiers and 400,000 reserve soldiers.
There are 205 National Guard posts across America with North Dakota being the only
state without one. Every other state in the U.S. has at least one post but some have as
many as 12. On military installations across the world, Department of Defense school
psychologists deal constantly with deployment issues and the impact they have on
children in the schools. Children who do not have easy access to a large installation,
however, are especially vulnerable to emotional wounds because of the lack of access
to base support networks. This is increasingly common in the war on terrorism with
the important role played by the National Guard and Reserve whose families frequently
do not live near military bases.
How school psychologists can help. Civilian school psychologists would be advised
to find those students who have a parent deployed as a National Guard or Reserve service
member. They may not be easy to find because of the strong sense of pride present
in most service families. This culture of military families is probably strongest on military
bases but very likely exists with Guard and Reserve families as well. Start with
your teachers and ask them to let you know when they have a student of a service member.
You can make a difference to that student and his or her family.
Predeployment and the Anticipation of Departure
The 82nd Airborne prides itself on being able to send a battalion of soldiers anywhere
in the world within 24 hours! Notice for deployment can come months in advance or
in only a few hours. Service members from the Guard and Reserve are being chosen
individually based on their particular skill area often, without much notice, leaving the
families distraught and unsure of where service members are going or when they will
return. Whereas deployments for individual service members used to occur approximately
every 20 months, now it is not unusual for the time between deployments to
be only 8 months. No matter how much time the family has prior to deployment, the
stress on service members and their families can be tremendous.
During this stage, it is common for family members to feel anger, sadness, fear, confusion,
and nervousness as well as pride. Especially with a first-time deployment, fear
is the overwhelming emotion. At times, the nondeployed spouse is feeling anger, often
directed either at the military service or at the spouse who is going to be deployed. In
addition, the family may be torn between trying to support
the service member to be deployed and seeking family
time together. As the service member is preparing for
deployment, his/her time may be limited and the family
may feel unimportant, and it is not unusual for marital
discord to occur with the emotional distance created by the preparation for deployment.
Some families report instances when the service member appears already “psychologically
deployed” and the spouse feels as though “all this would be easier if he/she
just went ahead and left.” There are some instances when a deployment takes place
before the reintegration process from the previous deployment is finalized. It can seem
like dad or mom is leaving again before he/she has actually had a chance to get comfortable
with being back with the family from the last deployment.
How school psychologists can help. Try to encourage your families to develop a plan
for taking care of the household and themselves. Talk with parents about sharing with
their children information about the deployment and as much as they can about where
they are going and what they will be doing there. With younger children, it may be helpful
to show them on a map where the service member will be and tell them about the
area: weather, food they will eat, who else will be there, how long they expect to be there.
Children may be fearful during this stage and may wonder things such as: Will dad or
mom be ok? Will I be ok? Who will protect our home (this is the most prominent fear
in young children)?
Staying in contact during deployment can be tricky based on what access the service
member will have to phones, computers, and mail. Make sure parents discuss and
agree on how, how often, and at what times to communicate during the deployment
and understand that there may be delays. Establish a goal to be able to send a letter or
e-mail each day or once a week. Also encourage them to be realistic about how soon
they can each expect to get a response.
During Deployment: Being Alone
Even though a parent is deployed, routine and consistency will be very important to maintain
for the daily functioning of the family. During deployment, children are faced with
experiences that are different from those of nonmilitary kids and that actually can foster
maturity and help them learn the importance of flexibility in day-to-day life. Sometimes,
extended family members move in to help with the children but most scenarios,
however, find the nondeployed spouse alone doing the job of both mother and father. Raising
a family alone is hard enough without the constant worry and uncertainty of the
deployed loved one’s safety. Daily and/or evening activities are often centered around an
expected phone call that may or may not come, depending on the service member’s situation.
Nondeployed parents have often reported that the most difficult time of the day
is that time right before bed when the father or mother is able to spend some alone time
reading or telling a story to the child. The aloneness is felt by the nondeployed parent particularly
when he or she is overwhelmed with all the responsibilities of running a household.
Fundamentally, spouses are resilient
and can cope, and there are instances when
spouses can develop increased confidence
in themselves during the deployment. Yet,
the stress of frequent deployments may
make it difficult to find the emotional
strength that is required. During this stage,
nondeployed spouses are frequently
focused on CNN and other news channels
trying to learn as much as possible about the
area where the loved one is deployed.
Happy and sad emotions flow quickly with
the next breaking news. Children will be
attuned to their parents’ feelings, may see
them crying, and wonder what is wrong.
How school psychologists can help.
Some families have addressed the bedtime
story problem with videotapes of the
service member reading a book aloud “to
the child.” The child can follow along in
the book as the parent reads on the videotape.
This intervention has been very
effective and is a favorite of the children. It is important to let parents know that in the
child’s mind no news is worse than bad news. Children need to know why their parent
is upset without providing them with information they are developmentally unable to
handle. Children do not need to know all the horrible details of a significant event but
do need to know some basics so that they understand some of what is going on. Many
times, children begin to have nightmares upon the parent’s departure. One defense
against nightmares is to put a pair of mommy’s or daddy’s shoes or boots under the bed
as “protection.” Families also consistently report that it is of great help to have the
children keep a listing or calendar of events that can be shared with the parent when
he/she returns. Record events with photos and writing about games, classroom activities,
report cards, milestones for babies, and anything else significant to the children.
The magical thinking of children is often hard to understand. Be sure parents know
their children do not think it is their fault that the military parent is gone. There have
been instances where children felt responsible for their parent being gone: “If only I’d
had a better report card …” or “If only I had done a better job with my chores, daddy
or mommy would not have left.” Help children understand that they have done nothing
wrong and that they are needed.
Homecoming and the Adjustment Period
The return of the service member is generally a happy and hectic time. There are times
when the military family member returns to a situation where things are in order at
home and the reintegration is relatively smooth. There are other times, however, when
the homecoming does not live up to the expectations, and resentment and hurt feelings
take over. The difficulties and strains of return can be surprising and sometimes
painfully disappointing to military families.
The service member’s return changes what has been a set routine and prompts many
questions from the children: Will everything be the same? Do they still need me? Will I
be able to keep seeing my friends? Do they still love me? What will make them mad now?
Elementary-age children may express intense anger as a way of keeping the returning
parent at a distance at first, protecting him or herself from even more potential disappointment. Adolescents can have mood swings and will often have a mixed reaction over
the days following the deployed parent’s return. The adolescent will most likely be excited to see the parent again but could also be self-conscious about expressing too
much emotion publicly and may be more concerned about acting cool in front of peers.
Repeated and ever-longer war-zone tours are putting increased pressure on military
families, pushing military members’ suicides to a record high (“Military Suicide
Rate,” 2008). The primary reason reported is often failed intimate relationships or
failed marriages. Certainly both spouses missed each other but the returning service
member may need some well-deserved rest and the nondeployed spouse may be eager
to soon turn over some of the household responsibilities to the home-again spouse.
Each may feel like they have done their part and deserve the other’s attention upon
return, but there are times when the military member returns as a different person—
affected by posttraumatic stress disorder, possibly physically injured, or perhaps addicted
to something. Some parents become frustrated seeing how quickly the family gets
back into old bad habits upon the spouse’s return; for example, sitting glued in front
of the television instead of reading together or spending some quality time with the
family. Some service members have reported
one of the biggest adjustments in
returning to home is dealing with the
“noise” in the house—television, kids, etc.
How school psychologists can help.
Families dealing with their first deployment
will benefit greatly from the school psychologist
explaining the dynamics of the homecoming.
In preparation for the return and
reunion of the service member, school psychologists
should advise families that spouses
and children need to talk about realistic
plans and expectations. Involve the children
in planning for the homecoming and
encourage them to express their feelings
about it. Parents should accept the child’s
feelings and have the returning parent talk
with the child about things the child is interested
in (storybooks, etc.). Be sure to encourage parents to talk with their children about
what is going on in their lives as well as what they have been through. Remind parents to
reassure their children that they are needed and that we are all happy to have the family
safely together again.
Possibly the most important thing is for both spouses to be ready to be understanding
and patient with each other. Reestablishing relationships will take time and communication.
It is common to find service members wanting to spend every moment
with the family. On the other hand, keep in mind that it is also normal for the service
member to need their personal space upon return. Many are simply looking forward
to sleeping in a soft comfortable bed for the first time since they left! Expect
things to be different and prepare to be flexible.
Reintegration and the Adaptations to Change
The reintegration of the service member into his or her family and society often can
take up to 6 months. Upon returning from combat, military members are required to
attend debriefing classes and are followed medically for potential mental health issues
for approximately a month. Many also work only half days during that time so as to
ease them back into their regular work schedule. During this time, families work to
stabilize relationships in the home. Recent research suggests that 1 in 8 returning soldiers
suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (“1 in 8,” 2004) but less than half of
those with problems seek help, mostly out of fear of being stigmatized or hurting
their careers (“Soldiers to Learn,” 2007).
How school psychologists can help. Communities should not wait for military
members and their families to seek help: it should be brought to them. Small group
sessions for children with a deployed parent as well as sessions for spouses with a
deployed spouse would be an ideal way of serving these special families.
Having a primary caregiver deployed to a war zone for an indeterminate period
is among the more stressful events a child and family can experience. It is also an
event that can bring a family closer together through increased recognition and support
for individual contributions. Please take advantage of our unique opportunity
to work with children and their families before, during, and after deployment.
Military OneSource (www.militaryonesource.com)
Pavlicin, K. M. (2003). Surviving deployment: A
guide for military families. St. Paul, MN: Elva Resa
Canfield, J. (2005). Chicken soup for the military
wife’s soul: Stories to touch the heart & rekindle
the spirit. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health
Military suicide rate. (2008, May 29). Chicago
Tribune. Retrieved June 16, 2008, from
Soldiers to learn signs of stress, brain injury.
(2007, July 17). Associated Press. Retrieved June
16, 2008, from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19813239
1 in 8 returning soldiers suffers from PTSD: But
less than half with problems seek help, report
finds. (2004, June 30). Associated Press.
Retrieved June 16, 2008, from
Our Military Kids. (2007). Retrieved June 16, 2008,
Mark C. Pisano, EdD, NCSP, has been a school psychologist in the Ft. Bragg Schools for 26 years. He
is also a psychological associate in private practice in the Fayetteville/Ft. Bragg area.