As a new season of Homeland begins, how accurate is their portrayal of a military family and a missing soldier who comes home? Turns out 70 years of research has helped us understand families under that kind of stress and the factors that make military families resilient.

In the US and many other western nations, military personnel are being deployed more often and for much longer than before the attacks of 9/11. The challenges deployments pose to families, however, are not something new. Research by Reuben Hill in the late forties described the stress that deployment during the Second World War put on families. He also helped popularize a simple roller coaster model of adaptation that had been described a few years earlier.

Basically, it works like this. After a while, families just like the one portrayed in the television series Homeland will adapt reasonably well during a soldier’s deployment, though that adaptation is usually preceded by a tumultuous period of disorganization where roles and responsibilities get confused. Mothers (or fathers) have to do double duty as both parents; children have more responsibilities. Both adults and children must look for extra social support wherever they can get it. When it works, Hill thought families could return to normal functioning even when one of the parents is deployed and absent. Homecomings repeat the pattern in reverse. Suddenly the new normal is unacceptable and families have to find a way to go back to how they were before deployment. As we see so vividly in Homeland, that transition back to being a family with all members present is almost as difficult as when a soldier leaves.

By the early 1980s, research by Hamilton McCubbin and Joan Patterson showed that most families that experienced the deployment of one of their members adjusted well enough to be considered resilient, and in fact many families surprised researchers by developing new patterns of coping that made them stronger than they were before the deployment. In other words, the stress of separation created opportunities to develop new strengths. Women (who were typically the ones left behind) found jobs, new relationships were created to add supports, there was a period of reflection on what matters most in life and a stronger adherence to family values. There was also a stronger sense of national pride.

All this growth, however, was predicted by how well the family was communicating before deployment, its ability to be flexible in the assignment of roles (Who mows the lawn after dad is gone?), their financial wellbeing, whether the deployment was meaningful (worth the sacrifice) to the spouse left behind, and whether the deployed soldier experienced satisfaction with his or her role as a soldier. As long as there were no serious mental or physical health concerns after the soldier came home, a strong family before deployment remained a strong family during and after deployment too.

I guess the writers at Homeland have done their homework. Brody’s family may have been struggling on their own for 8 years, but their home life looked pretty stable when we met them in season one, episode one. Jessica Brody seems to have adjusted, and even the kids seemed well cared for, though the eldest daughter, Dana, is admittedly a bit messed up. But would she have been any less so with dad at home? In season two, Dana showed she had some solid moral character. We can guess that the foundation stones for her values were laid down early. In my books, that’s the sign of a well-functioning family, even if a child is going through a period of adolescent rebellion.

Of course, Brody wasn’t just deployed, he was missing in action. Eight years is a long time for any family to wait for a parent to come home. There is actually some research on precisely what families in these situations experience. The family therapist and author Pauline Boss has described this state of uncertainty as ambiguous loss, which is a good description of what families experience when a soldier is missing (or other family tragedies occur—think of a tragic car accident that leaves a spouse severely brain injured—which make it difficult to fully grieve because separation or death is not clear or final).

Here again, Homeland has done its homework. Families experiencing ambiguous loss will eventually move on with their lives: spouses cautiously, and with a lot of guilt, begin to date. Children begin to attach elsewhere. Families reorganize, but it takes longer than during a regular deployment because, well, to be frank, they don’t know what the new normal is supposed to be nor how long it should last.

Season one was pretty clear with regard to how distraught a family can become when their adjustment is suddenly thrown under the bus and the soldier who was MIA reappears, disrupting the very tentative calm that has taken years to build. We can’t blame Jessica for dating Mike, can we? The research shows that this is part of a family’s resilience though the grieving spouse will still harbour lingering worries about betrayal, the children will struggle with allegiances to a new father-figure, and a dozen other ethical dilemmas. There would be more than enough problems to cause any family stress, and yet, in general, families like the one we see in Homeland really do adapt. As Hamilton McCubbin and Joan Patterson found in their research, families of the missing have lots to worry about, face social sanctions if they move on with their lives, and if they remarry, might even risk a charge of bigamy. Still, against all odds, most families like the Brody’s move on.

And now it’s season 3. Brody has left his family. Jessica has returned to Mike. Maybe a new family balance has been struck, not quite as predicted by the research, but resilient nonetheless. It’s still to be seen whether that resilience is enough to carry the family through the next season. I for one will be watching, and wondering, what does the research tell us about missing soldiers coming home and becoming terrorists? Not much, at least not yet.

In the meantime, families who are experiencing deployment of a member, may want to consider the following:

1) Prevention is important. The less pile up of stressors there are before deployment, the better the homecoming will be. Get financial matters in place. Put effort into communication if possible. Build some good memories and set expectations for who will look after what tasks while the deployed parent/spouse is away.

2) Tolerate changing roles. The family during deployment is not the same family as pre-deployment. Roles are going to change. The spouse at home is going to play the role of two parents. The deployed member is going to have time to think and may become more thoughtful. In fact, time and again, the research shows that deployment can change families for the better, not worse. Expect to grow.

3) For children, deployment is an opportunity for emotional and psychological resilience. They can, and should, grow up a little more quickly, take on new responsibilities, and understand their role is to keep the family working while a parent is away. The only problem is that growing up also brings with it normal amounts of stress, and the regular hiccups we call the terrible two’s, surly tweens, and rebellious teens. These ages and stages don’t stop just because dad or mom are deployed. Normal, or what is called horizontal, stress can collide with the exceptional, or vertical, stress of coping when a parent is deployed. Kids can resent having to hold it together. But they can also live up to expectations. The world over, when I study resilience among children under incredible stress, I find the same thing: kids grow during a crisis and are capable of much more than we think.

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