Nine-year-old Micah wasn’t ready to talk about what he was feeling. But the cardboard tank he fashioned out of paper towel tubes, broken boxes, and egg cartons spoke volumes about what was on his mind.
A participant in The Chicago School’s creative arts therapy sessions for children of Illinois National Guard personnel, Micah had been told he could make anything he wanted out of the discarded materials available. His creation—held together by hot glue and masking tape—offered a revealing glimpse into the thoughts that preoccupied him. His dad, who had been deployed to Afghanistan, was home now. But somehow the anxieties that had defined his world for the past year didn’t go away so easily.
“The kids we see are at all different stages of willingness to talk,” says Drew Gleitzmann, a first-year Clinical Psy.D. student who worked with Micah on his project. “Some won’t admit to their fears, while I’ve had 6-year-olds say ‘I’m afraid Daddy will die’.” The experience of working with these children is a powerful one that keeps bringing him back, Drew says. Before coming to this session in Joliet, he had been to at least eight similar sessions that The Chicago School offers—in partnership with the Michael Reese Health Trust—in towns throughout Illinois.
Part of the Guard’s Family Reintegration Program, the initiative—which The Chicago School has recently named the Home Again project—uses music, drama, and art to help children begin the process of acknowledging and addressing their anxieties. Psychology graduate students attend the Saturday morning activities, working as volunteers with participants and assisting therapists from the Institute for Therapy through the Arts (ITA ).
Under the direction of Clinical Psychology Assistant Professor Ted Rubenstein, who designed the project, they lead children ranging in age from 3 to 15 through activities using songs, musical instruments, painting, and performing as outlets for unvoiced feelings.
“We integrate the activities so that one builds on another, giving kids more opportunity to deal with what’s really on their mind,” says Katherine Dillingham, an ITA drama therapist who coordinates many of the sessions. Micah illustrated her point by using his tank in an impromptu play that featured an imaginary “Colonel Bob” who carried wounded survivors to safety and looked in vain for a way back to base. When Micah was asked if his dad drove a tank in Afghanistan, though, he just shrugged.
“Our purpose is not to provide intensive therapy at these sessions,” Dillingham says. “We’re not set up for that. We just want to give them permission to start a conversation at home.” Children leave the session with a workbook of activities they can do alone and with their family, and with a list of referral sources for families who want to pursue follow-up services.
Micah is among the 700,000 U.S. children who had at least one parent stationed overseas for military duty last year. An APA Task Force on Military Deployment Services, published in 2007, identified the “unique constellation of stressors” on these children and summarized their responses to deployment, which varied by age, development stage, and family resilience factors. While preschoolers are likely to react with tantrums and separation anxiety, the report said, school-age children may experience mood shifts and declines in school performance. But deployment was found to have particularly detrimental effects on adolescents’ lives, often overtaxing their limited coping resources. See chart.
Although families look forward to their soldier’s homecoming—often with unrealistic expectations of picking up where they left off—such reunions usually come with their own set of stressors.
“Combat deployment can produce enormous ambiguity and chronic anxiety, but families tend to experience even greater levels of ambiguity when the soldier returns,” says Dr. Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University. “The place that each person has in the family has to be renegotiated and it’s not always easy. A child might have reached puberty and have totally different expectations of the parent, and the spouse might have learned to make all the decisions and not be eager to give up this new level of autonomy.”
Good communication skills play a critical role in post-deployment family life, but it can be difficult to know what the boundaries are, Dr. Wadsworth says.
“Family members may say they want to hear about the soldier’s experiences, but the soldier can be dubious, not knowing whether they are really ready to hear what he has to confide. It can cause a lot of anxiety—not knowing whether others will really understand.”
The APA Task Force reported that families of National Guard and Reserve personnel face even greater challenges during and after deployment than active duty families do. Both soldiers and family members are likely to experience higher stress because they are less prepared for the realities of combat and family separation. They often feel isolated in what they are going through because they are not surrounded by other families in the same situation.
Children can have a particularly hard time in a non-military environment if they’re the only one with a parent in harm’s way, Dr. Wadsworth says, adding that they can be very sensitive to a teacher or classmate who expresses anti-war views.
“They don’t want to be outed. Young children, particularly, are not yet ready to appreciate the political complexity of such viewpoints and they see the comments as criticism of their parent.”
Although the Home Again program has only been implemented in Illinois so far, The Chicago School is seeking funding to expand it geographically. Plans are also underway to develop modules of the project that specifically target preschoolers and teens, and that are adapted for families of fallen soldiers, families during deployment, and long-term follow up for families currently being served.