Military Family Communication During Deployment: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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Military members receiving cell phone minutes. Image by familymwr.

When today’s military deploys, family members can stay in touch  by Skype, email or texting.  In contrast to the laboriously written letters of yesteryear, modern soldiers and their loved ones can communicate almost instantaneously.  While that sounds like a good thing, research into how families communicate, both with the deployed family member and with each other, has turned up some surprising, and some not so surprising findings for National Guard families.

Military Families: The Study Participants

Dr. Houston from the University of Missouri, and colleagues from the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma veteran’s affairs and family development agencies, examined the communication in families of deployed National Guard members from Oklahoma.  Children and non-deployed spouses were studied by “examining the frequency and quality of family communication prior to, during, and following deployment.”  Thirteen spouses, nine of which had children the right age to participate in the study (ages 8 to 18),  were interviewed.

National Guard Members and Communication

Unlike other members of the military, members of the National Guard live off-base.  This means that communication with other military families is more difficult.  In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Dr. Houston noted, “National Guard (NG) families (like the families in this study) might live in communities where they are the only family experiencing deployment.”  This makes family communication even more important.

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The Impact of Deployment on Family Communication

Researchers found that children reported having the best communication with the at-home parent about deployment issues over other issues.  But, over time, other communication dropped off.  Dr. Houston explained to Decoded Science, “we don’t know if the mother (the non-deployed parent) made the special effort to talk about deployment with the child or if this communication was initiated by the child (or both). But what we do know is that the quality of communication about deployment with the non-deployed parent was best at deployment, even as overall communication suffered.”

When asked if the sudden status of sole parent may be behind the decline in communication, Dr. Houston replied, “I think your description of a stressed caretaker having less time for communication overall but still communicating about the central issue facing the family makes sense.”

Children with siblings fared best; these children reported getting support from their brothers and sisters.

The Impact of Communication with the Deployed Parent on Children

More communication with the deployed parent did not equal better adjustment for the child.  Children who reported, “During deployment, child-reported communication with deployed father (communication frequency and quality with dad and texts to and from dad) was related to more loneliness and anger… while child-reported communication with siblings was related to less loneliness.”  These correlations were statistically highly significant.

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