Helping children, families manage the stress of parent returning from deployment

Psychology program helps military families adapt to life back home


Abigail Gewirtz

Foundation Professor Abigail Gewirtz joined the Arizona State University Department of Psychology this year after an award-winning tenure at the University of Minnesota and brought with her a series of programs designed to help the parents and children of military families.

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Since 2001, more than 2 million American children have had a parent deployed at least once. Military families endure many forms of stress, either directly or indirectly related to their time in the service, including multiple deployments, relocations, traumatic injury, loss or long-term stress and anxiety. It is reported that over 25% of military members and veterans experience acute stress, depression or even PTSD. 

One of the challenges for many service members is understanding that their personal traumas are not traumas that their children had to endure, and that the stress their children feel over seemingly trivial events is real. When their child is upset about not being invited to a school dance, it isn’t that the stressor isn’t causing pain to their child. While this is different from worrying about combat or personal safety, it can still be traumatic and important to their child. 

Additionally, their children and spouses have had to deal with different stressors, such as the uncertainty of if they will see their parents again, financial difficulties or having to move locations frequently and restart their lives.

Foundation Professor Abigail Gewirtz joined the Arizona State University Department of Psychology this year after an award-winning tenure at the University of Minnesota and brought with her a series of programs designed to help the parents and children of military families. 

“I have devoted my career as a professor first at the University of Minnesota, and now at Arizona State University, to developing and testing skills-based parenting programs that promote children’s resilience,” Gewirtz said. “Broadly speaking, I focus on parenting and how to help parents in particular who've been exposed to some kind of traumatic stress, whether that's a parent who's been deployed to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or parents who have fled conflict in their home country, or parents and kids exposed to other kinds of violence.”

Gewirtz is the primary investigator of multiple projects, including the ADAPT program and Parenting in the Moment (PIM). The ADAPT program is an evidence-based parenting model giving parents tools to be their children’s best teachers, reduce stressors and improve family and individual wellness. 

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“One of the programs my team and I have been working on for the last more than 10 years is adaptive parenting tools or ADAPT. It was originally known as After Deployment Adaptive Parenting Tools because we originally designed it to serve military families in which a parent had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan,” Gewirtz said.

Gewirtz is also the head of the Center for Resilient Families in the ASU REACH Institute. The Center for Resilient Families aims to raise awareness of and increase access to parenting interventions and resources to promote resilience in traumatized children. She is also the author of “When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Children.”

A key feature of the ADAPT program is addressing how to talk with children about difficult and uncomfortable subjects. 

“Instead of ignoring the problem, or dealing with what we call big emotions, like those larger emotions that scare us, we coach families on how to understand what's going on with ourselves first. This allows participants to understand and approach those often hard to talk about or hear about conversations from a parent's perspective,” said Amy Majerle, research and implementation program manager of ADAPT. 

Majerle speaks from experience after serving in the Minnesota Air National Guard for 22 years and trying to maintain a family through deployment. She pursued graduate education to help similar families with that difficult process.

What is often lost in the reacclimation process for service members is interacting with their children after deployment. 

“Language in a high-stress environment, such as combat, is very different from what is ideal or helpful when communicating with your child,” Majerle said. “Your family may not respond well to your soldier tone at home. It’s hard because what makes you effective in one environment (the military) may not go over so well in a situation that needs a parent's finesse. Our military parents have to learn how to switch hats, and that can be really difficult, especially when under stress.”

Learn how to get started with ADAPT as a family or as an organization.

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