When a serving member is deployed overseas or away for long periods, the whole family can be affected.
Reconnecting after deployment or absence
Life in the military can include time apart from family and friends due to deployment, training or commitments such as Reserve duties. Serving members might experience living in different locations and having new experiences, some of which can be exciting but may also be difficult, or even traumatic.
Such aspects of military life may be embraced as being part of the job. Gaining expertise and experience can be rewarding and a source of pride. This doesn't make being away from family and friends easy, but it can mean the cyclic nature of military service becomes a new normal.
For families and friends, being part of the military family involves attempting to adapt to this cycle and cope with lengthy periods of time where a loved one:
- is away
- might be in dangerous or uncertain circumstances
- experiences low levels of communication
Despite these concerns, military families can develop strong resilience through learning to manage without their family member during their absence.
Being away from each other can alter the dynamics of personal, family or community life. While it is natural to think that things might ‘go back to the same as before’, it is important to acknowledge the changes that all members of the family may have undergone:
- older children may have stepped into more mature roles
- spouses will have managed the household and become more independent
Reconnection following an absence can take time, patience and self-awareness to build understanding and manage challenges that may present.
It is normal to feel a range of emotions about reconnecting after being apart for a long time. This might include balancing excitement with feelings of uncertainty and nervousness. For both the serving member and other family members, there may be an experience of feeling ‘disconnected’ even when everyone is back together again.
Help for reconnecting
The experience of reconnecting following time apart will be unique for each member of the family.
It can be helpful for families to:
- Anticipate the return home.
- Understand what will be the same, what will be different and what will need new understandings.
- Take time to find out what different friends and family members do now.
- Consider your children’s responses. Be prepared for them to display a range of emotions and behaviours.
- Understand and acknowledge the changes and be prepared for additional adaptation.
- Talk about what it will be like when the serving member returns home.
- Keep communication open, respectful, flexible, realistic and truthful.
- Keep the lines of communication open, express your feelings and be ready to adapt.
- Discuss both your excitement and happiness that the family will be together, but also your concerns and things that might be making you nervous.
- It can be helpful to set boundaries to help manage your own and other’s expectations. Your friends and broader family will likely want to catch up once everyone is back together, but you might want to let friends know that you would like to see them but that your family needs some space first.
Remember, everyone is adjusting and:
- children may swing between adoration and rejection
- adjusting to new routines and distribution of responsibilities can be confronting
- it may take some time for the returning member to ‘find their fit’ in terms of role in the family unit
Current and ex-serving members
During your time away there may have been changes to the dynamics in your family, circle of friends and in the community. Your time away may also have contributed to changes in you as a person.
Take it slowly
- You may feel fatigued, confused and find it difficult to adjust to a change in pace. Home is not a military outfit and the pace may seem slow, unproductive and even frustrating. You may need to prioritise rest and recuperation.
- Give yourself time to talk, reconnect and readjust.
- It might be helpful to spend time on an activity, pastime or hobby that you enjoy as you adjust.
- Become familiar with relaxation techniques and other self-help tools.
Recognise and reset
- Acknowledge that your experiences might have influenced your self-identity.
- Reflect on what your time away meant to you.
Talking about these thoughts with your family, an Open Arms Peer and/or a clinician could be beneficial. Such an amalgamation of competing emotional needs can create complexity in any relationship and seeking assistance to try and resolve issues can help.
Sometimes reconnecting is not as smooth or easy as everyone would like. Serving members may be impacted by their experiences and if they are still learning to manage those impacts, that stress can also affect the family.
There are a range of behaviours that might indicate someone is struggling, including:
- feelings of irritation
- trouble sleeping
- difficulties managing anger
- alcohol or drug misuse
Open Arms provides free and confidential counselling 24/7 to partners and children of those who have served. We also provide online tools to help serving and ex-serving ADF members and their families manage stress and build resilience.
Defence Families Australia provides information, advocacy and advice to Defence families. Services for families of serving members are available through Defence Community Organisation (DCO), including a family resilience program (Family SMART and the 24-hour Defence Family Helpline (call 1800 624 608).
Relationships Australia offers a broad range of service to individuals, families and communities across the country such as counselling, mediation, and family dispute resolution. Phone 1300 364 277. They also run family violence prevention programs to help people deal with violence and/or abuse issues in their relationships.
Head to health provides access to information about mental health care services, as well as links to online self-help programs for families, children and parents.
Your GP can help you develop a mental healthcare plan if you or a family member is struggling with mental health issues.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line 1800RESPECT is also available on 1800 737 732 if you are worried about you or your family's situation.
Every family goes through stressful times. Recognising when things aren't quite right - and knowing what to do next - will make veteran family life more fulfilling.
Open Arms can provide individual, couple and family counselling to help improve your resilience, as well as enhance your mental health and wellbeing. Call 1800-011-046 for free and confidential 24/7 support.