When parents deploy to a war zone overseas, their absence can have ripple effects that are felt long after they return. Parents and their children often struggle to figure out how to be a family again after leading separate lives for months or years. Now, there's an effort to make the transition from combat life to home life less rocky.
A small but groundbreaking University of Minnesota study is attracting attention from military leaders and Congress for its potential to help troops and their families. It comes amid growing recognition that supporting military families at home makes soldiers stronger at war.
It's dinnertime at the Ross house in the Twin Cities suburbs. National Guardsman Kevin Ross asks his 2-year-old son, Isaac, to put plastic cups on the table for him and his two sisters.
With the help of a new parenting study, Ross has recently changed the way he talks to his three children — Elena, 9; Lucy, 6; and Isaac. Before, Ross says, he would have talked to them like he talks to the soldiers he commands, and he would have expected them to obey without talking back.
The Rosses are one of more than 120 military families participating in the University of Minnesota study, After Deployment: Adaptive Parenting Tools, or ADAPT. Researchers in the study observe families and then offer them special discipline and communication techniques to try at home.
Lead investigator Abi Gewirtz says the idea is to reduce the kind of stress that can cause conflict between parents and kids.
"What we know about families under stress — whether it's stress due to deployment or stress due to any other family transition — is that when families are stressed, it's parenting that is hit," Gewirtz says.
When a service member returns from deployment, household routines are turned upside-down, and parents have to renegotiate their relationship as a couple as well as their roles in the family. To prevent hurting a child's development, the ADAPT study recommends that parents get on the same page when it comes to discipline. The program teaches them to give short, simple, face-to-face directions kids can understand, and to use praise and incentives to encourage good behavior.
While all families could use the ADAPT study's techniques, they're especially helpful as troops transition from combat to the homefront.
Ross, 31, says his family knows these challenges firsthand. When he left in 2009 for Iraq with 682nd Engineer Battalion out of the Willmar, Minn., he and his wife, Emily, had two children. When he returned, they had three.
Ross was away from home for about 18 months. For Emily, 32, single-parenting was tough. But it was an even bigger adjustment when her husband returned home.
"His responsibilities were all centered around him, and then coming back to a household of five people and a wife who's been dealing with it alone all this time and is ready for a break," she says, "I think it took some time for him to readjust to even what his responsibilities in the family were."
According to Emily, the parenting techniques they've learned in the study have made a big difference. Their kids don't follow directions every single time, but they now know what's expected of them. She says she'd like to see the study expanded to help military families nationwide.
"It should almost be a requirement for families going through this that they go through training like this," she says. "You know, they train the soldiers; you might as well train the families along with them."
ADAPT researchers agree. Over the next five years, the study will recruit 400 more families and follow them. They hope their findings eventually can be shared with military families across the U.S.