Academic journal article Family Relations

Parental Deployment and Youth in Military Families: Exploring Uncertainty and Ambiguous Loss*

Academic journal article Family Relations

Parental Deployment and Youth in Military Families: Exploring Uncertainty and Ambiguous Loss*

Article excerpt


Parental deployment has substantial effects on the family system, among them ambiguity and uncertainty. Youth in military families are especially affected by parental deployment because their coping repertoire is only just developing; the requirements of deployment become additive to normal adolescent developmental demands. Focus groups were used to inquire about uncertainty, loss, resilience, and adjustment among youth aged 12-18 that had a parent deployed, most often to a war zone. The nature of uncertainty and ambiguous loss was explored. Response themes included overall perceptions of uncertainty and loss, boundary ambiguity, changes in mental health, and relationship conflict. These accounts suggest that ambiguous loss is a useful concept for understanding the experiences of these youth and for structuring prevention and intervention efforts.

Key Words: ambiguous loss, family theory, military families, youth resilience.

Loss occurs in numerous contexts and under a variety of conditions. Often, what is common to these contexts and conditions is uncertainty. An example of a complex situation of uncertainty and loss is found in the life of an adolescent who has a parent deployed to a war zone in the post-9/11 era because the situation has the usual elements of a catastrophic situation, more normal elements of being deployed, and the potential tragic elements of terrorism. The work of Boss on ambiguous loss provides an important framework for exploring how adolescents experience and respond to parental deployment (Boss, 1999, 2004, 2006). Her framework is instructive because of its grounding in family stress and resilience theory; its extant applications to various individual, family, and community situations; and its relevance for prevention and intervention programs. An ambiguous loss is by definition uncertain, vague, unclear, and indeterminate (Boss, 1999). A family member may be physically absent but psychologically present, or a family member may be physically present but psychologically absent; both of these situations thwart people's desire for certainty and may become an obstacle in healthy patterns of development. This kind of loss may also be uncertain as to its duration or even whether or not loss has occurred. Ambiguous loss can be associated with a number of family situations, including chronic physical or mental illness, missing persons, adoption, or divorce (see Boss, 2004, p. 555, for a chart of the range of family loss conditions).

Deployment, War, Terrorism, and Uncertainty

Loss and uncertainty are because of circumstances and situations, as well as perceptions people have about those situations. Beyond the built-in uncertainties of the situation, individuals process uncertainty in different ways, thus each person's actual experience of loss may vary.

From a situational perspective, the only certainty about the deployment of a service member during war in an era of terrorism is uncertainty from beginning to end. This feeling of uncertainty may begin when families begin to wonder about if-or when-their husband/father's or wife/mother's unit will be mobilized and then deployed (Pincus, House, Christenson, & Adler, 2004; Waynick, Frederich, & Scheider, 2005). Although families are almost always given a date for when a unit will be deployed, this often changes. It is not uncommon for families to accompany their deploying member to the send off point only to find out that the date has been changed, causing families to repeat their whole goodbye ritual (Waynick et al., 2005). This scenario illustrates the emotional ambiguity that begins even before the service member leaves.

This ambiguity continues at both a practical and an emotional level when the service member actually deploys or leaves the family for duty in a war zone. At a practical level, families must reorganize their daily routines so they can function without the physical presence of the deployed member (Pincus et al. …

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