Fall 2017

Coming home


Illustration by Keith Negley

Since 9/11, more than 1 million parents have been deployed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many of them more than once. For the approximately 2 million children left behind, the pain of separation—a whole year of missed birthdays, soccer games, and holidays—and the anxiety of having mom or dad in harm’s way is compounded by impaired post-deployment parenting.

“Parents return to what we call the ‘new normal,’” says Abigail Gewirtz, the John and Nancy Lindahl Leadership Professor in the U’s Department of Family Social Science and the Institute of Child Development. They are expected to slip back into the role of spouse and parent while dealing with the aftermath of combat.

Studies on soldiers and deployment abound, but there was little research on the impact of deployment on parenting. So in 2010, Gewirtz, who is also director of the U’s Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health, launched ADAPT (After Deployment: Adaptive Parenting Tools). It’s the first military-specific parenting program to be tested using randomized controlled trials, the gold standard for scientific studies. 

“I felt very strongly that if this 1 percent of our population is serving and sacrificing for the other 99 percent, the least we can do is provide them with what we know works best,” she says.

The U’s Abigail Gewirtz has been studying the effect of trauma on children for nearly 20 years.

Eyewitness to war

Gewirtz, herself a mother of four, knows firsthand the effect of traumatic stress on kids. As a young graduate student at Israel’s Tel Aviv University during the first Gulf War, she worked as a hotel manager. She remem-bers the sirens, the missile strikes, and the gas masks handed out in case of a chemical weapons attack.

“What I observed,” she says, “was that the most terrified among all the people in this hotel were the hotel workers who were separated from their children at home. And I became interested in learning from parents and kids in traumatic situations.” 

A native of London, Gewirtz also remembers her father’s stories of World War II. He was 5 years old when 3 million people, mostly children, in towns and cities throughout Great Britain were evacuated to places of safety in the countryside. Many children were separated from their parents. “It was very traumatic for so many children and families,” she says. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the overarching theme of Gewirtz’s work has been improving the lives of children and families affected by extreme stress and trauma—from war to homelessness. ADAPT is the result of her most recent research.

ADAPT is a 14-week program taught in weekly two-hour group sessions using role play, practice, and discussion. Its curriculum includes topics familiar to anyone who has ever read a parenting book or participated in early childhood family education—how to set family rules, maintain effective discipline, and learn active-listening skills. But it also addresses topics specific to post-deployment military families, such as the challenges of combat stress reactions. It includes a strong focus on helping parents regulate their own emotions and respond to their children’s emotions, which can be especially difficult if a parent is dealing with the aftermath of combat.

Results from the first study of 336 families have been encouraging. Gewirtz, whose team videotapes parents and children in their home, has observed improvements in parenting, which in turn improves kids’ adjustment. Gewirtz and her team also found that participants reported more confidence in their parenting skills after taking part in the program. 

“The program causes improvements not just in parenting skills and kids’ outcomes but in parents themselves,” she says.

Help for “weekend warriors”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had an outsize impact on “civilian soldiers”—those in the National Guard and Reserves. Almost 30,000 Minnesota National Guardsmen and women, many of whom signed up pre-9/11 expecting to serve the country during natural disasters and other short-term crises, have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 and 2009, during the Iraq troop surge, Gewirtz began seeing research about elevated risks of PTSD and combat-related adjustment problems in Guard members. And she wasn’t entirely surprised. 

“They don’t have the support and structure of the military base,” she says. “They may live in a small town, where they might be the only person in the Guard. They may deploy with a unit a hundred miles away. Their kids may have teachers who don’t understand what it’s like to have a parent deployed to war.” 

Janice Hawkins agrees. A divorced mother of three from Shoreview who serves in the Minnesota National Guard, Hawkins says her frequent absences from home, which can last from several days to several months, have taken a toll on her children, but the skills she’s learned through ADAPT have made life easier. “In the military we’re pretty direct and straightforward, and we have this expectation that when we say to do something, you do it. And with children it does not work that way,” she says with a laugh. “Now I redirect the way that I address the children. If I stop and talk to them like small people instead of just barking orders, it works better.”

Hawkins appreciates the focus on military families. “I hate to say this, but sometimes civilians don’t understand. They say, ‘How can you choose to be away from your family?’ So having personnel who are familiar with the constraints and challenges was very beneficial. It was a more forgiving environment.”

Freedom to innovate

Since launching ADAPT, Gewirtz and her team have modified the program for active-duty and special operations soldiers, who deploy more frequently. The new format includes a self-directed online version and one in which participants meet with a facilitator once a week over online conferencing. 

Families from Michigan and Minnesota are being recruited to test the self-paced program, and those from bases in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Washington to take part in an online conferencing pilot. When the additional studies are completed, more than 1,300 families will have benefited from ADAPT.

Gewirtz says being one of two Lindahl Leadership Professors at the U has encouraged her to dream big and develop her ideas. The latest: to create a wearable device (like a Fitbit) to help parents with PTSD track and respond to stress. A little ping on the wrist could signal a rise in blood pressure and remind the wearer to take a break, for example, ending the traumatizing cycle of reaction and overreaction. 

“It’s hard to get grant funding for new ideas and pilot studies because you don’t have any data showing positive results,” she says. “But that’s the kind of thing that an endowed professorship can give you the freedom to do—to pursue your passion.”

Laura Silver is a Minneapolis freelance writer.