Strengthening Families

Joy, her sons and husband Mike.

Marines Partner with Cincinnati Children’s to Renew Bonds

For 15 months while deployed in Iraq with the U.S. Army, Joy convinced herself that not seeing her sons, then just 18 months and 7 years old, was alright.

“One way I coped with the separation when deployed was to convince myself that not seeing them every day wasn’t all that big of a deal,” says Joy, who is now a civilian therapist for the U.S. Marines. “That lie took several months to construct, and so when I saw them again all the missing them flooded me.”

For many members of the military, a homecoming can be bittersweet. The overwhelming emotions during the first hug with a child or significant other can be invigorating. But what follows can be disheartening.

Sometimes deployed military personnel find that relationships cannot just pick up where they left off. Not only have the children grown and changed, but those returning have been through traumatic experiences that can affect their parenting skills.

“When you’re deployed you only talk to other soldiers,” Joy says. “You might not have talked to a kid in months, and when you come home, you don’t want to treat children like soldiers.”

The Marine Corps has acknowledged the difficulties that surround a member’s homecoming. They have enlisted Cincinnati Children’s to train therapists, like Joy, serving Marine families to help returning members reacclimate and strengthen their relationships at home.

Advocates for Children

As a recognized leader in the protection of children and the identification and prevention of child abuse, Cincinnati Children’s has offered training and continuing education opportunities for healthcare professionals for nearly 15 years through the Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children.

The Mayerson Center is a national model of innovative, compassionate care that improves the lives of abused and neglected children. The Mayerson team also conducts research to discover and implement ways to help children become emotionally and socially healthy.

“We built this center at Cincinnati Children’s to work on a model of collaboration,” says Robert Shapiro, MD, director of the Mayerson Center. “Hospital staff, county social workers and law enforcement officers all work together to diagnose and protect abused children.”

The new contract with the Marines formalizes a partnership between the military group and expert therapists at Cincinnati Children’s.

“Our center will disseminate best practices through this new partnership so that our methods can reach children and families nationwide,” Dr. Shapiro says.

The Mayerson Center is leading trainings on a specialized behavior management program called Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) which has been adapted for use with the military, especially Marines.

For this pilot program, the trainings include therapists serving Marine families from across the country and Japan who will then return to their home bases to implement what they’ve learned. The program has the potential to impact hundreds of families and expand beyond this first effort.

“The goal for all military families who participate in the trainings is to come home and have a normal family dynamic while taking into account the events and possible trauma deployed parents may have gone through,” says Erica Pearl, PsyD, clinical psychologist in Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology and the Mayerson Center.

Supported by more than 30 years of research and practice, PCIT focuses on increasing positive behaviors from the child through a strong parent-child relationship. The results include decreasing parenting stress and reducing child behavior problems.

“The therapy has shown to have a long-lasting effect for civilian families,” says Robin Gurwitch, PhD, clinical psychologist. “Studies have reported that after an average of 12-15 sessions, the improvement and benefits are still there six years later. We believe the same will be true for military families.”

Passing on Knowledge

Joy, who is now a civilian clinical program manager for the Marine Corps Family Advocacy Program, is the project manager for the Marine Corps PCIT pilot. She has also completed the PCIT training hosted by Cincinnati Children’s to help Marine families. Not long after training, Joy found herself using the knowledge gained for her own family.

Joy ’s husband and step-father to her two sons, Mike, was recently deployed with the Army. Before this last tour of duty, his third, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, making his reintegration to home life even more difficult.

“We only lived together as a family for two months before Mike was deployed,” Joy says. “There was a bond that was forming that was definitely interrupted by his deployment.”

When Mike returned home, Joy was able to use the tools she learned to help him strengthen the bond with his stepsons. She has seen her husband and many other military personnel quickly put the techniques to work.

“When I returned home from deployment, I could use my skills as a therapist, but I could not hand them to my husband to use,” Joy says. “The methods I learned at training are comfortable for him. He feels empowered to use the techniques. He even notices when he’s using a specific behavior, like positive reinforcement. He kind of looks over at me and smiles.”

Giving herself and Mike this tool to return to daily home life has been invaluable to help maintain a sense of normalcy in their home.

“We are thankful to be just a normal family,” Joy says. “We have Friday night movie night. We enjoy playing with the dogs, taking walks and just being together."

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Joy while she was deployed in Iraq with the U.S. Army.