Study hopes to help soldiers get back to jobs as parents

Parenting workshop
Dr. Abi Gewirtz, left, and Margaret Lathrop lead a role-playing exercise during a training workshop at the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday, April 12, 2011. The workshop, co-led by Gewirtz and Lathrop, was part of the After Deployment: Adaptive Parenting Tools training, which provides information and techniques for parents to help cope with issues related to military deployment.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

As 2,400 soldiers from the Minnesota Army National Guard prepare to deploy to Kuwait next month, University of Minnesota researchers will be keeping an eye on their families.

They're hoping these soldiers can help them understand the toll that combat deployment takes on parents. Studies have shown that deployment stress affects parenting and may result in behavior and emotional problems in children. The goal of the study is to help Guard families with school-age kids weather deployment.

Workshops intend to train participants to eventually facilitate their own groups of National Guard families.

On the St Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, half a dozen National Guard soldiers or spouses sit in a circle. They are taking part in a workshop intend to train participants to eventually facilitate their own groups of National Guard families.

"Hi, dad," said one woman, playing his daughter.

"Dad" responded. "Hey, Hannah. Why don't you take a seat? I just got a call from your teacher."

The teacher called "dad" to say his "daughter" may have been involved in a dangerous classroom prank.

"Dad" angrily peppered his "daughter" with questions and accusations of guilt. It doesn't take long for the conversation to dissolve into raised voices and tears.

"This is not about me, Hannah! It's about the fire you started. You could have burned the school down!" dad said, as his "daughter" cried.

The scene ended with the group laughing.

Afterwards, it discussed what worked and what didn't. They agreed that finding ways to avoid reacting out of anger could help de-escalate conflicts like these.

The parenting techniques they were learning are from a program called "After Deployment, Adaptive Parenting Tools/ADAPT." They are based on an existing program developed in Oregon, called the Oregon Parent Management Training.

The program has proven successful in strengthening parenting skills and reducing depression, substance abuse and criminal behavior. Children who participated showed fewer behavior and emotional problems years after their parents participated in the program.

Dr. Abi Gewirtz
Dr. Abi Gewirtz, co-leader of the After Deployment: Adaptive Parenting Tools training seminar, talks with participants at the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday, April 12, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Principal investigator Abi Gewirtz is adapting the program to the specific needs of military families.

"It's a parenting intervention that has been shown to be very, very effective at supporting parenting in other contexts, so our test is to see whether it works at promoting children's resilience in this context," Gewirtz said.

The University of Minnesota study is the first of its kind to focus on parenting in Guard families with soldiers who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The $3.2 million five-year study is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Over the next few years, researchers will recruit 400 families with kids between the ages of five and 12. Some will learn the new parenting techniques. The rest will get resources normally offered to military parents seeking help.

Researchers will follow the families over time to test the program's effectiveness.

Gewirtz said the goal of the study is to help people parent effectively despite the difficulties of deployment.

"The effects of deployment on kids are not ... just about combat stress symptoms that the soldier might be experiencing, but they are about the fact that the parent was gone for a year in the child's life."

Parenting can suffer when parents feel stressed, and that affects children. And because research shows that the period when soldiers return from combat is often the most stressful time for military families, Gewirtz said that's when families will be enrolled in the study.

Role playing
Thad Shunkwiler, 27, of Mankato, takes part in a role-playing exercise during After Deployment: Adaptive Parenting Tools training at the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday, April 12, 2011. The workshop provides information and techniques for parents to help cope with issues related to military deployment.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Back at the workshop, 27-year old National Guard soldier Thad Shunkwiler from Mankato said that, while every parent experiences stress, military parents face additional challenges when it comes to dealing with their children's emotions. He said they have been trained to not let emotions interfere with action under pressure. It's a hard habit to break at home.

"All of your training in the military is to react -- react, react, react, react, react -- not respond, not think about it -- it's to react," Shunkwiler said.

The study aims to help military parents deal with this contradiction.

Researchers say the first 100 families will be recruited by summer. If the study is successful, they hope to expand the program to other military families in Minnesota and across the country.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.