New year can bring challenges

New Year’s, the benchmark for beginning new goals or renewing commitment to old ones, may be an especially difficult time of year for families where the strands of routine have been untwisted by deployment.

About 120,000 military service members are deployed worldwide. Approximately 39,500 of them are serving in Afghanistan, said Department of Defense spokeswoman Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson.

Fifty-nine Pennsylvania soldiers and airmen are currently deployed, a majority of them in Afghanistan, Pennsylvania National Guard Public Affairs Major Angela King-Sweigart said.

She was deployed from 2003 to 2004 and knows the strain it can put on families.

“My husband was home. It’s tough for both parties. As a service member, you work and keep busy in those days. And your spouse is left home to carry on family traditions without you.”

At the time of her deployment, she and her husband didn’t have children.

“I can imagine for families with children, it is difficult,” she said.

It is important for parents to express to their children when they feel depressed, said UPMC Altoona mental health counselor Christine Zernick.

“Let’s say Mom needs help gardening. Dad always helped her with the tomato plants, and he’s not there. The mother should share that with her child,” she said. “That kind of role modeling helps children to share feelings. That way, when the child is feeling something, they are more apt to share.”

Although each child has a unique response to a parent’s deployment, Zernick said adolescents ages 11-18 can have what she calls “misdirected anger” when a parent is deployed.

“That anger could be manifested in problems in school, with academics, loss of interest. A child may not be as chatty as he or she used to be. They could become more dependent on their guardian or less dependent – they may isolate themselves more in their room, not participate in as many school activities,” she said. “Every case is so different – if they rely on dad in intramural basketball, and he was the coach, they may or may not want to be involved any longer. It may be too much for them.”

In each school in Blair County, UPMC mental health liaisons like Zernick work with a student assistance program team that includes a teacher and principal. The program is mandated by the state government to address a range of mental health crises that students experience.

There are currently few students in Blair being counseled for the deployment of a parent, Zernick said.

“But if a teacher, coach or administrator catches word that mom or dad has been deployed, and personnel believe it would benefit the student to talk about the deployment and how it affects them, a process begins,” she said.

The team meets during the school day to review the referral. If the information shows a concern or need, the team will contact parents about the student assistance program. When the team has a parent’s permission, its members will talk about how to help the student.

“The biggest thing I have to say to parents is try to share your feelings, keep a good routine and keep open communication with your school,” Zernick said.

“The kids are worrying a lot about the routine with their parents and in the home [when a parent is deployed].”

But with some creativity, routines can be kept with parents despite distance from them.

A New Year’s resolution to read a book might close the distance with a deployed parent during times they are able to communicate.

“For kids into reading, they can choose a book and say ‘within three weeks let’s read four chapters of the book and although they are miles apart, they can share a common interest and not always talk about the deployment,” Zernick said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.