TL;DR: Communicate supportively with your children while you are deployed – regardless of whether you can speak to them often or only rarely.
“Uprooting and separating families or forcing them to make those choices is why many choose not to stay, and why many choose not to join at all…”
– Navy Service Member (2018 Military Family Lifestyle Survey)
From first-hand experience, many of us know that separations caused by deployments can put strains on family member relationships and undermine the physical and mental health of both active duty parents and their children. Nowadays, there’s research to back that up.
In our 2019 Survey, both active duty service members and military spouse respondents ranked “time away from family” as a top five issue of concern, for the third year in a row.
Two professors at George Washington University have recently been digging into this issue, by researching long-distance communication between deployed service members and their families. Today, we are going to walk through some of their findings!*
*All three of the studies mentioned in this article are part of a larger research project on military family communication.
Supportive communication is key.
In their 2018 publication (“Supportive communication…”), Sigelman and Friedman examined communication between deployed parents and their children, ranging in age from 4 to 18, using data from an online survey completed by 180 at-home caregivers. (Fun fact: Sigelman and Friedman recruited many of their participants through Blue Star Families!)
They wanted to know: Why do some military-connected children fare well during deployments, while others do not? Why are some children more resilient than others? Might continuing communication between military parents and their children during separations help protect some children from the potentially damaging effects of separation?
For this study, they considered the implications of both the quantity and quality of deployed parent-child communication for child adjustment (which they assessed in terms of behavioral problems and overall health-related well-being).
- Quantity of communication was defined in terms of frequency of communications per week.
- Quality of communication was defined in terms of the deployed parent’s supportiveness and the child’s positive emotional reactions to communicating.
What did they find? Sigelman and Friedman found that the quantity of communication between the deployed parents and their children was largely unrelated to child adjustment. That is, it didn’t so much matter how often the deployed parents spoke with their children as it did what they said to their children.
Quality, not quantity.
“The message about frequency shouldn’t be ‘don’t communicate.” Most of our families did communicate and actually communicated quite often (maybe once a day across several different methods) – and that’s good. But don’t worry too much if you can’t arrange for highly frequent communication, because the quality is much more important.” – Dr. Sigelman
Alright, but what do they mean by “quality”?
In their 2017 study (“Quantity and Quality…”), Friedman and Sigelman examined the impact of “positive” versus “controlling” long-distance communication between deployed parents and their adolescent children (ages 11 to 18). They based their findings on the reports of the adolescents themselves as well as on the independently provided reports by their caregivers at home.
- Positive communication referred to the deployed parent’s supportive and open interactions with their adolescent.
- Controlling communication was defined in terms of attempts on the part of the deployed parent to regulate from afar the behavior of the adolescent.
75 adolescent respondents were asked to independently complete online surveys about their communication with their deployed parents and about their emotions and functioning. The at-home caregivers independently completed a parallel survey about the adolescents’ communication with their deployed parents and about the adolescents’ emotions and functioning.
Friedman and Sigelman found that more positive (i.e., supportive and open) and less controlling communication was linked to better adolescent functioning.
The aggregated information from the adolescents’ and caregivers’ surveys revealed that the quantity of communication between the deployed parents and their adolescent children was not linked to adolescent functioning.
Be supportive, open, and affectionate when communicating with your child.
Avoid trying to control their behavior from afar.
“Quality, quality, quality is the message in both of these studies.” – Dr. Sigelman
“The most important take-away from our  study is that deployed parents ought to try to interact with their adolescents in a supportive and affectionate way and cut down on communications aimed at disciplining their adolescents from afar… Considering that positive communication was linked to better adolescent functioning, this means that there is a possibility that if more deployed parents interact with their adolescents in a way that shows interest and expresses positive feelings, their adolescents will benefit.” – Dr. Friedman
Positive Communication in Your Marriage Also Matters!
In their 2018 study, Sigelman and Friedman found that caregiver’s marital satisfaction and perceived stress were linked to child adjustment during deployments. Low caregiver stress and high caregiver marital satisfaction were associated with low problem behavior and high health-related well-being among military adolescents.
In 2019, they undertook an analysis of 106 deployed military husbands and their at-home wives (both of whom provided data) to determine whether the quantity and quality of their communication were uniquely linked to the couples’ well-being (“Communication, Context, and Well-Being…”).
They found that the at-home wives reported more negative emotions after communicating, stress, and down days, on average, than their deployed husbands.
Wives’ well-being was most closely associated with short separations and high positive and/or low negative emotions after communicating. These measures of the emotional quality of communication were the only significant predictors of deployed husbands’ well-being (assessed in terms of marital satisfaction, stress, and health/mental health indicators).
“Again, the main outcome was that communication was most strongly related to well-being via quality, not quantity.” – Dr. Sigelman
“We must remind ourselves that we can’t separate how much is really an effect of communication on marital satisfaction – it could just as easily be that a good marriage is associated with good communication. But at least we’re seeing a linkage – [i.e.,] we’re seeing an association that tells us that deployments tend to go better for both partners if they have positive interactions with each other rather than spend their time on the phone/video chat dealing with problems and conflicts.”
– Dr. Sigelman
So, what are the main takeaways for deployed service-members?
“Ask children about what’s going on in their lives. Give them a chance to express how they are feeling about things. Definitely communicate that you love them and you miss them and you are interested in how they are doing. It’s the kind of thing you would want from any parent whether they are far away or nearby, but it might be especially important in these separation situations…
Same thing with the couples: If you are going to have limited opportunities to talk to each other, make it count – use it as an opportunity to reinforce your love for each other and your support for each other, so that’s the memory that’s carried away from the phone conversation or video chat, the memory that can buoy you up for a while.” – Dr. Sigelman
Dr. Friedman and Dr. Sigelman also had a few suggestions for the military:
- Encourage service members to communicate with their family members when possible.
“Let people know that they are encouraged to communicate with their family. Not only because it’s better for the person at home, but because, most likely, it is better for the well-being of deployed parents and their ability to function in their military roles.” – Dr. Friedman
- Break down barriers to communication.
“Anything the military can do to make it easy for families to stay in touch, we would certainly recommend.” – Dr. Sigelman
“[The ability to communicate] depends on what kind of work people are doing for the military. For example, if someone is in a submarine they cannot always communicate; likewise, special operations cannot always communicate… So, it’s important that – when the means of communication are available and it is possible to speak with loved ones – the military support, encourage and create the best possible conditions for better communication.” – Dr. Friedman
- Evaluate and improve existing family support programs.
“The military has a lot of family support programs… The problem is that they are rarely evaluated for their efficacy – i.e., the extent to which they are successful in terms of achieving the goals for which they were created. And if they are evaluated, it is in terms of client satisfaction. As such, we don’t know whether what’s available to help families is working in the way that it should be in order to strengthen families during separation… I hope more can be done.”
– Dr. Friedman
“There is a dire need for longitudinal follow-up studies and intervention studies with military families that represent the demographic characteristics of the military and its different services (e.g. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, etc.). These methods of investigation lead to conclusions about what aspects of military service and of the family experience are causes of desired functioning at the individual, family, and military levels. Such methods of research are expensive and are unlikely to be carried out unless the military invests in them through the support of the best research ideas emanating from the scientific community. This approach to funding research has yielded excellent results in biomedical and behavioral basic and applied research. I hope that the military will invest in such research with the goals of maintaining a healthy military community, higher retention and optimal recruitment of the next generation.”
– Dr. Friedman
Blue Star Families would like to thank Dr. Friedman and Dr. Sigelman for their excellent work!
Studies such as these are invaluable, insofar as they enable military family advocates (like Blue Star Families) to formulate evidence-based recommendations for Congress and the military.
Speaking of valuable research…
Stay tuned for more of our 2019 Survey findings and recommendations – coming in 2020!
We’ll be releasing the results of our 2019 Military Family Lifestyle Survey in early 2020. While you wait, join Blue Star Families for free today to read through our 2018 comprehensive report and a summary of trends related to significant shifts in military issues. We can’t wait to welcome you to our family!