A Minute With...

Aaron Ebata, expert on parenting, stress, and children's coping skills

8/6/2013  8:00 am

The American Academy of Pediatrics is calling upon physicians to be attentive to the mental health needs of children in military families. Aaron Ebata, a professor of human development and an Extension specialist in family life at the University of Illinois, is an expert on parenting, stress and children’s coping in circumstances such as natural disasters. He also is collaborating with lead investigator and communication professor Leanne Knobloch and Extension specialist Patricia McGlaughlin on a study of the relational turbulence that military families experience during post-deployment reintegration.

Ebata, who is director of the autism program and associated with the Family Resiliency Center at the U. of I., spoke recently with News Bureau editor Sharita Forrest about strategies for promoting resilience and family cohesiveness in difficult circumstances.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging military and civilian pediatricians to be attuned to the potential impact that military parents’ deployments and returns may have on their children’s mental health. What have you learned in your research with military families?

image of professor aaron ebataWhile the report in (the journal) Pediatrics focuses on the risks and difficulties that children might face and the mental health consequences of parental military deployment and returns, we’ve found in our research that these situations also present opportunities for growth and development.

Children tell us about all the things that change when a parent gets deployed, but kids also tell us there are some positive things that come out of it. The family often gets closer. They learn skills or become more independent. They find the support of folks around them. They get to experience new and different things because of their involvement with the military.

We tend to focus much more on the risk side of things, and for important reasons, but we need to focus a little bit more on factors that promote resilience in families and kids. And our work with military kids will really help us understand how families in different kinds of stressful situations can successfully cope and then grow from those experiences.

When do situations such as lengthy deployments, difficult reintegrations or surviving a natural disaster compromise children’s well-being?

An important issue to look at is all the disruptions in relationships, roles and routines that happen. Many things change when a military parent leaves, so there’s a period of adjustment then, but there’s also adjustment when they return. The greater the disruptions in the family’s daily routines, relationships and roles, the more likely it seems to be that kids will have difficulties – especially if it means having less emotional support and less time in activities that bring enjoyment or relief.

When a parent in the military is deployed or returns, what can families do to ease those transitions?

Like adults, kids try to cope by trying to understand the situation and feel like they have some kind of control. They also want closeness and connection with parents, but might have a hard time saying so. Kids tell us that it’s really important to them that parents spend extra time with them.

When a parent returns from deployment, kids may be more needy or clingy because they are trying to re-establish the connection that they had with that parent previously. They need to know that the returning parent is also adjusting and might be grumpy or impatient sometimes.

In wartime, children often have incomplete understandings of what it all means. They might want to ask questions, but parents might not want or be able to talk about it, and that causes some difficulty. The returning parent sometimes has to make difficult decisions about what information to share.

We found that spouses often try to avoid certain topics to protect the relationship, but this undermines being able to connect with each other at a time when having that connection is really important.

There are times when being able to do fun things together outside of the home in a different setting can relieve some of the stress and make it easier to connect again. Outdoor activities like camping can make it easier. U. of I. Extension’s Operation: Military Kids program provides activities such as summer camps for kids and events for the whole family.

What coping strategies help disaster survivors?

A lot of the traumas and difficulties in these situations are exacerbated when the disruptions cause isolation, overwhelm the parents or when children are put in situations with a lot of conflict.

When we worked with children that were affected by the massive flooding in Illinois in 1993, and victims of the tornado that struck Ogden and St. Joseph a few years later, we found that being able to carry on routines or “normal activities” provided the kids with an arena of comfort and support that was really important and helpful.

Other researchers have confirmed that having these sources of support and being able to carry on the usual routines really seems to predict better outcomes.

Another important aspect is whether kids can positively reframe or create meaning out of the difficulty they are experiencing. These meanings are often filtered through families.

After the floods, some families were able to reframe the situation and focus on the positives. Kids talked about seeing examples of the goodness of humankind, such as when National Guardsmen or volunteer firefighters from another state drove out with their pumper truck to pump out flooded basements. Kids also learned that families were important and that adversity can make people stronger and draw family members together.

When events happen like the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon, adults can focus on the positive things that people have done, such as heroic acts by bystanders or first responders. They can also discuss how important it is to help, to trust, to be able to count on other people and to be one of those people who make a positive difference.

And it’s similar with military families during deployments. Point out where people help and make a positive impact and discuss with kids that the deployed parent – and their family – is doing something that’s really important.

Whatever the circumstances, kids need to feel that the contributions they are making are meaningful and important and that their responsibilities are reasonable and not overwhelming. That helps them develop a sense of competence, feel that they’re contributing and that whatever they’re going through has some good to it.

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