Not like the movies: How military deployment changes the family dynamic
New book shows effect on Oromocto adolescents when a parent goes off to war
A New Brunswick sociologist is giving people a rare glimpse behind the front lines at home when a parent goes off to war.
Deborah Harrison researched the lives of families of soldiers from the Oromocto area during the Afghanistan mission.
She paid special attention to the teenagers left behind with one parent during deployments, and how their lives changed.
On Monday, Harrison and co-author Patrizia Albanese, a professor of sociology at Ryerson University, are releasing their book Growing Up in Armyville. They used the pseudonym Armyville for any Canadian military community.
"We have been aware of the experience of veterans a little bit," Harrison said. " And we've been aware of casualties. But what's largely invisible is the experience of people behind the scenes of veterans — the members of their families. There had not yet been a civilian-driven study on the adolescent children of military members' families in Canada."
Harrison said the Afghanistan mission presented the perfect opportunity.
"We didn't have any book on how adolescent children experienced deployments — we had the Afghanistan mission, and we had the fact that we didn't have anything in Canada," she said.
So with those arguments in hand, she approached the Oromocto school district, District 17, and asked it to enter into a partnership. It didn't take much convincing. Educators saw the study as a chance to build up information for its own files on the experiences of students whose parents were absent occasionally for military deployments.
The co-authors first conducted a general survey comparing the mental well being of military students to their civilian counterparts. There were more indications of depression and low self esteem compared with others their age, but nothing startling.
Harrison said one of the more illuminating parts of the study was the personal interviews. Sixty-one students were selected, representing each grade in the school. Most had experienced parental deployments.
Everybody is stressed'. The adolescent is worrying. He or she has less access to extra-curricular activities, less access to his or her friends, and so he or she is more isolated.– Deborah Harrison
"Many of them had had parents go to Afghanistan," she said. "Quite a few of them had had parents return home with PTSD. We did in-depth interviews with the students and, basically, we learned a lot about family dynamics during deployment and when parents returned home."
It turned out to be a window into what happens inside a military home, when one parent leaves for a mission.
"Everybody is stressed," Harrison said. "The adolescent is worrying. He or she has less access to extra-cirricular activities, less access to his or her friends, and so he or she is more isolated."
The teens in the household also started doing lot of extra jobs around the house.
Girls took on the heaviest workload.
Girls 'took care of mom'
"They did a lot of the emotional work," Harrison said. "They took care of mom. They censored communication with young siblings, you know, communication coming from the member in Afghanistan, if the news was bad or scary. They would help mom to make sure that the younger siblings were protected. They refereed in fights. They spent extra time with their moms."
Harrison says it can be a pressure-filled environment and there's little help available. In most cases, schools and teachers aren't even aware of which students are going through it.
And forget those Hollywood-like impressions of soldiers returning and happily-ever after reunions. Harrison says their research shows it's not really like that.
'Really exciting at first'
"When the parent returns home from the deployment, it's really. really exciting at first," Harrison said. "Everybody's happy to see one another. but the parent's life has been really different, and it's usually he has been exposed to immense stresses, life is very intense.
"He's been in an operational theatre ... it's been very different from home."
Meantime, the family's life at home is completely changed, as well.
The adolescents have been taking on jobs that they weren't taking on before. They've developed a different relationship with the parent who stayed at home, and the parent who comes home from the operational theatre walks into all of this.
"So everybody thinks it's going to be like the movies, but everybody's different. All the family roles have to be renegotiated," Harrison said. "So if you have something different like a physical injury or a post-traumatic stress disorder, then that really adds to the stress."
At the end of their study, school District 17 set up a symposium with about 30 people to talk about the issues involved with military deployments.
"We had some discussion of the findings," Harrison said. "And we formulated 18 recommendations that were directed at the school system to better support students who are from military families during deployments."
One of the recommendations that was implemented involved the annual intake forms parents fill out at the start of every school year in the district. It was recommended the forms include boxes to check off if you are a military parent and another box to check off if if you are going on a major deployment in the current year.
Other key recommendations included asking the school district to make military adolescents' issues part of professional development days on a regular basis, and asking the high school guidance department to start a deployment peer support group for interested eligible students.
"I think the book probably has a double message," Harrison said. "And that is that the military deployments overload adolescents, they overload families. Families are asked to endure stresses that they should not have to endure. And there is not enough support for them, either during or after the deployment.
"But the other part of the message is that families cope really admirably in many instances."
A book launch for Growing Up in Armyville will be held Monday at 4 p.m. at the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre in Fredericton.