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'Mindfulness' and communication techniques help military members reintegrate with their families

By MARK BRUNSWICK | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 9, 2017

Tina Kill Lenling was troubled by what she saw in herself as a mother and wife after she returned home from a 15-month deployment to Iraq in 2010.

Things only seemed to get worse after an eight-month mobilization to Florida a few years later.

Kill Lenling, a sergeant major in the Army Reserves who also works in law enforcement, said she realized that her near constant yelling was causing strife in her family. It got so bad, she said, that she caught herself looking for opportunities for other deployments just so she could leave again.

“What kind of crazy thought is that? Thinking that a family is better off without a mother, for Godsakes?” she asked. “I was just trying to come back and reinsert myself into a family that seemed to be getting along better without me.”

Concerned for her well-being and that of her family, Kill Lenling sought help from a local veterans’ center, which recommended she participate in an experimental University of Minnesota program designed for military families with school-age children and aimed at reducing stress.

Results of the five-year study, the first of its kind in the nation, show that techniques used in the program can enhance parenting skills in veterans and reduce post-traumatic stress symptoms and thoughts of suicide. They also can improve children’s behavior and resilience in school.

The program, known as After Deployment: Adaptive Parenting Tools (ADAPT), has been so well-received that its methods are likely to be applied across the country for families in the National Guard and Reserves as well as for active-duty families. Another program in the works would address the stress on Special Operations families caused by “operational tempo,” a military term for the unpredictable pace and requirements of deployments or missions.

“We teach parents emotional regulation skills,” said Abigail Gewirtz, a professor in the Department of Family Social Science and the Institute of Child Development at the U, who led the study, “to help parents learn to be present and respond to their emotions rather than be overtaken by them.”

Close to 2 million children in the U.S. have a parent currently deployed. Families often feel the strain of reintegration when that parent comes home, a situation made more difficult by the duration of the deployment, the trauma of combat and the unusually structured nature of military culture.

The skills required in leading a squad of soldiers in a combat zone can be a stark contrast to those needed in dealing with a child who won’t pick up his coat off the floor.

Gewirtz’s research focuses on prevention programs that promote child resilience among highly stressed families, including those affected by military deployment, war, domestic violence and homelessness.

The program aims to help ease the transition by training mothers and fathers in parenting skills, family communication techniques and stress reduction, frequently employing such seemingly nonmilitary methods as “mindfulness.”

In a trial of 336 Minnesota National Guard and Reserve families, some participants wore heart sensors to monitor the stresses they exert on each other, and others were videotaped to record their interactions.

Over a span of 14 weeks, participants met for two hours each week in church basements and community centers, where dinner was served and child care offered.

The research was aimed primarily at gauging the effect of reintegration on families of Guard and Reserve members, who have made up nearly half the U.S. forces sent to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years. That number, unprecedented in modern American warfare, is likely to have a ripple effect on family life for years as soldiers return home and resume their civilian lives.

A ‘lifesaver’

Kill Lenling calls the program a “lifesaver.”

“I’m very strict,” she said. “I’m a police officer. I’ve been leading troops for 31 years. I’m a sergeant major in the military. When I say something, people do it. It really doesn’t work that way with a family.”

She and her husband, Steve Lenling, attended sessions with their youngest child, Isaac. They participated in problem-solving tests, role playing and scenarios where they were videotaped interacting with Isaac. There were daily work sheets to complete, too. They were taught techniques of escalating directives and implementing consequences if Isaac balked at what he was asked to do. Eventually, Tina Kill Lenling said, the yelling subsided.

Now, when stressed, she says she tries to get in a quiet place, breathe deeply for several minutes and think of something peaceful: often the ocean or something with water.

“I try to be mindful and not ruminate,” she said.

Their 15-year-old daughter, Angela, has noticed a difference in her parents.

“They communicate more and ask each other before making decisions, which works out better,” she said. “It’s more thoughtfulness to stuff. You can talk about it more, instead of being told ‘yes’ or ‘no’ right away.”

The Vogel family of Bloomington was one of the first to participate in the study.

Joe Vogel, a recently promoted first sergeant who works full-time for the Minnesota National Guard, had just returned from a deployment to Iraq when he and his wife, Molly, began participating in the study in 2011, meeting at a church in Burnsville. They still practice the techniques they were taught, as evidenced when their second-oldest child, Graydon, came home sick from school on a recent afternoon. The couple has three children -- William, 11, Graydon, 8, and 13-month-old Ava.

As an example of setting goals and recognizing rewards, they’ll set a timer for homework right after Graydon and William come home from school.

“What’s beneficial for them is that they know that there is a time, they know when its going to stop and they know when they’re going to get some down time,” Joe Vogel said. “For them it’s a success. They accomplish something and they still have their night to look forward to.”

Molly Vogel said the program has also helped them re-evaluate their lives. She no longer works in a stressful position as a manager in retail and now devotes more time to family.

“When I was working chasing my career and he was working chasing his career we were just taking on a lot of stress,” she said. “It was less than desirable for raising a family the way we want to be raising a family. We’re taking it down a notch.”

Based on the program’s initial results, a new study funded by the Department of Defense known as ADAPT4U has been developed. It will include self-directed online and telehealth versions, in which parents are guided through the online program through a weekly video conference with a program administrator.

Gewirtz, the U researcher, said the program is likely to be needed for a while.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to be involved in military operations for a long time,” she said. “It’s not that military families are at risk because they are in the military. On the contrary, there may be aspects of military family life that are good for kids.

“It’s deployments that are rough. We can help provide a buffer to those families.”

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©2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Crews unload a C-130J upon returning from deployment Sept. 15, 2017, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.
RHETT ISBELL/U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO

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