University of Minnesota
U researchers Abi Gewirtz and Laurel Bidwell are partnering with the Minnesota National Guard and Reserves to test parenting resources for families with children ages 5-12 who have recently gone through the deployment process.
Helping parents to ADAPT
U researchers are assessing new resources for families with a parent returning from a military deployment
By Rick Moore
Gwen Zimmerman spent 22 years in the Army National Guard before retiring last summer, and she knows firsthand the trials and tribulations of leaving your kids behind to serve overseas. Between her and her husband, Steve, they’ve been through five deployments.
Fortunately, there have been pleasant endings for the Zimmermans.
“There’s nothing better than when the pilot wakes you up on your trans-Atlantic flight and says, ‘Folks, I just wanted to let you know we just crossed into U.S. airspace. Let me be the first to welcome you home,’” says Gwen Zimmerman. “There’s nothing that can replace that feeling and the first time you get to hug your children.”
That’s tempered by the reality of returning from a war zone and trying to settle back in to domestic life.
“All of a sudden I had to figure out when my kids took naps, what food they ate and didn’t eat, and when they went to bed,” Zimmerman says. “I had to remember how to change a diaper again!
“It was really odd. You’re like, ‘How could I have forgotten this—what kind of mom am I?’ But you do.”
New strategies to help parents
University of Minnesota researcher Abigail Gewirtz has studied the critical correlations between parenting and children’s health, especially in high-risk conditions, and in recent years has become interested in military populations.
“Since they put their lives and [the health of] their families on the line for our country, they deserve to get the best of what science can offer,” Gewirtz says. “And yet there have been almost no studies of parenting among service members.”
Signing up for ADAPT
Laurel Bidwell, the project director for ADAPT, and Abi Gewirtz are actively seeking families to participate in the project. For more information, visit the ADAPT site.
That’s about to change. Gewirtz and fellow researchers Laurel Bidwell (U of M) and Melissa Polusny (VA) are partnering with the Minnesota National Guard and Reserves to develop and test parenting resources for families with children ages 5-12 who have recently gone through the deployment process.
Called ADAPT (After Deployment: Adaptive Parenting Tools), the project examines the effectiveness of an evidence-based parenting intervention that’s been modified for military families in the National Guard and Reserves.
Over the next five years, Gewirtz and Bidwell hope to recruit 400 families for the study. Families will be randomly assigned to one of two groups—one that receives standard parenting literature and another that participates in a 14-week session with facilitated groups and web-enhanced components.
The goal is to equip parents—and by extension, their families—with the best tools possible as they face deployment and then family reintegration.
Navigating the new terrain back home
As difficult as it is to leave behind a family for the unfamiliar landscape of an Iraq or Afghanistan, returning back home often entails conquering equally challenging terrain.
Zimmerman, whose son and daughter are now 10 and 8, describes a honeymoon period in which the returning parent doesn’t want to be the bearer of discipline. Routines vanish. And the world at home is suddenly foreign.
On a leave during a deployment, Zimmerman suffered from migraines for almost six weeks because, strangely enough, “there was color here,” she says. “Trees were green; grass was green. There were dandelions. The lilacs were blooming. There were smells in the air instead of just sand and dust and garbage…
“And my sensory system was overloaded so much that even thought all my children wanted to do was spend all day with me while I was on leave, I was down for the count by mid-afternoon.”
Then there are the new family dynamics. “My husband definitely had a different style at the house than I had during his deployments,” she notes. “Then for the kids to find the new balance … We’ve been through this several different times, and we know we’ve made some mistakes because we’ve recognized it after the fact.”
Zimmerman recently completed an ADAPT pilot program and felt the sessions “gave me time not only to get the material but then to personalize it for my own environment and share with other parents.”
Gewirtz points out that the group-based components of the ADAPT project are delivered by both community facilitators and National Guard personnel, and down the road it could be sustained within the Guard.”
“Ultimately,” she says, “our hope is that if this is shown to be effective, it will not just be used on reintegration, but also during deployment and prior to deployment, to help families prepare and adjust to the changes associated with those stages.”