I teach communication, conflict and personal relationships. And I've studied how military families cope with that sticky transition time between deployment and when everything seems normal again that we call "reintegration." So I know from the standpoint of an expert how hard it can be -- but also what you can do about it.
We all have heard or know from experience that adjusting to life after deployment can be surprisingly difficult. As a professor who has spent the past six years studying how military families adjust to homecoming, I’ve seen how stressful it can be for military families to fit each other back into their everyday lives. Everyone develops new routines during deployment, and when they’re back together again, they can get frustrated by how often they “bump into each other.” The transition can be tricky because people have many unanswered questions and tend to get in each other’s way.
So what can you do about it? I've conducted several research projects to understand how best to cope with the transition from deployment to reunion. Here are some practical tips based on my findings:
1. Be prepared. Put yourself in each family member’s shoes, think about reunion from everyone’s perspective, and do your best to anticipate the changes that may be stressful to them. Get ready and do your homework: Talk with people who have been there, and seek out resources so you know what to expect.
2. Take time to get reacquainted. Even if you stayed in close contact during the deployment, each family member (including you) will have changed in ways that may have gone unnoticed. Spend quality time together and don’t feel pressured by other people or activities competing for your attention during the first few weeks.
3. Have patience. Reintegration is a process, not a one-time event. Adjustment takes time. Ups and downs are normal. Give adults (and especially children) time to warm up. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself or your family by trying to speed up the transition.
4. Talk as often and as positively as you can, but don’t push family members to share details of stressful experiences during deployment before they’re ready. Those discussions should happen when individuals are ready to disclose and family members are ready to listen.
5. Have a plan, but go with the flow. Carve out ways to spend quality time together, but don’t forget to be flexible. Even the best-laid plans may not work out quite the way you hoped. Be chill and stay easygoing.
6. Be practical. You may be tempted to cram in all of the activities you missed while apart, but of course, that’s not possible. Avoid disappointment by keeping unrealistic expectations in check.
7. Find your new normal. Certain activities, hobbies, or routines that were easy for your family before may not be easy anymore. Reassess your daily activities; figure out which ones to keep and which ones to get rid of.
8. Recognize that each transition is different. Just as every deployment is unique, every reunion is unique, too. What worked for your family after a previous deployment – or what’s working for other families in your unit – may not be right for your current situation. Focus on making the best choices for you and your family right now.
9. Use resources. Take advantage of the services available to you, such as your family readiness group, your military family life professional, your chaplain, and Military One Source. Find a babysitter and have a regular date nights. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from medical health professionals, especially if family members are having trouble dealing with so much change happening all at once.
My colleagues and I are committed to doing cutting-edge research to discover the best strategies for reintegration after deployment. Do you want to help future military families by sharing your homecoming experiences? Here at the University of Illinois, we are looking for soon-to-be reunited military couples to complete an online questionnaire in exchange for e-gift cards. Learn more here.
Dr. Leanne Knobloch is a faculty member at the University of Illinois, where she teaches courses on communication, conflict, and personal relationships. She is an award-winning researcher who enjoys serving as a member of the Science Advisory Board of the Military Child Education Coalition. She is excited that the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs chose to fund her research on how military families communicate upon reunion after deployment.