The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Targets of Change: Supporting Strong Parenting Among Military Fathers

Friday, January 17, 2014: 10:00 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 008B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Carolyn J. Dayton, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Tova B. Neugut, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Susan C. McDonough, PhD, Associate Research Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Karen Smith, Lmsw, Imh(III), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Maria Muzik, M.D., M.S, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Katherine L. Rosenblum, PhD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry & Associate Research Scientist, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Purpose: Forty-four percent of U.S. service members are parents, most of them fathers (U.S. DoD, 2011).  In recent years, long separations from their children and families due to repeated deployments have been common for these men. Parental qualities of patience and flexibility are key to sensitive parenting of young children (Stern, 1985), but shifting back into an active fathering role may be challenging for some men following deployment.  Parenting support during this period may help fathers transition effectively back to family life, yet services designed to meet this need are scarce.

Methods: Using qualitative methodology, the current study solicited military fathers’ (n = 15) experiences of parenting young children in the context of repeated deployments. Data are drawn from a larger investigation examining the efficacy of a post-deployment intervention for parents of young children (≤ 7 years; STRoNG Military Families). Drawing on principles of grounded theory (e.g., Glaser, 1978), a thematic analysis of pre-intervention interview data was conducted using NVIVO.

Results: Overall, the picture that emerged is one of both hope and struggle. Fathers described their hopes that their children would be independent, strong and capable of handling life’s inevitable challenges. Managing their reactions to their children’s expression of negative emotions was frequently reported as a particular challenge.  In some cases fathers felt frustrated that they could not comfort their children effectively. In other cases, their children’s sad and angry emotions triggered powerful memories from the battlefield that left them unable to respond sensitively. Fathers described a reliance on their partner to take the lead in parenting when they felt overwhelmed and distressed. They cited the wish to connect with other fathers and to learn to co-parent more effectively with their partners as important goals for the intervention.

Conclusions  and Implications: These findings suggest targets for parenting intervention that include:  1) Provision of developmentally informed psycho-education to help fathers develop parenting practices that support emotional and behavioral regulation in young children;  2)  Training fathers in self-care and stress-reduction skills that help them remain calm when reactions in their children trigger intrusive and traumatic memories from the battlefield; 3)  Teaching fathers about the normative expression of sadness, loss and grief in young children to facilitate insight and empathy for the sometimes difficult to manage behaviors their children may display; and 4)  Helping parents to co-parent effectively.

Most importantly, the knowledge that military fathers are motivated to help their children become independent can inform service delivery protocols. Capitalizing on this motivation, parenting strategies can be taught that sensitively support young children’s drive for independence while simultaneously helping fathers feel efficacious in their efforts to provide strength and safety to their families. Based on these data, and grounded in principles of attachment and family systems theories, the STRoNG Military Families intervention: 1) uses a group parenting format that both parents attend together, 2) includes a child-led play-based child curriculum , and 3) provides psycho-education about the developmental needs of young children with a focus on the context of deployment and reintegration.