Texting a double-edged sword for military families

U. MISSOURI (US) — Cell phones and the internet help deployed soldiers and their families keep in close contact, but negative consequences can go along with the benefits of staying in touch.

The new research could lead to guidelines for how active military personnel and their families can best use modern communications.

“Deployed soldiers and their families should be aware that newer methods of communication, especially texting, can have unintended impacts,” says Brian Houston, assistant professor of communication at the University of Missouri.


“The brevity and other limitations of text messages often limit the emotional content of a message. The limited emotional cues in text messages or email increases the potential for misunderstandings and hurt feelings. For example, children may interpret a deployed parent’s brief, terse text message negatively, when the nature of the message may have been primarily the result of the medium or the situation.”

Published in the Journal of Loss and Trauma: International Perspectives on Stress and Coping, the study documents the frequency and quality of communications between soldiers and their families and examines how those results are associated with the emotions and behaviors of military children and spouses.

Children who have the greatest degree of communication with a deployed parent also show the greatest number of behavioral problems and emotional troubles. This may be because when kids are having a hard time they may be most likely to reach out to a deployed parent. However, that can cause a conflict for the soldier between the roles of warrior and parent.

“Bad news from home can distract a soldier from their duties and double their stress load,” Houston says. “A soldier can end up dealing with both the strain of warfare and concerns about a distant child.”

On the other hand, children with a deployed parent who talk about deployment with a brother or sister tend to exhibit positive outcomes, according to the study. This shows the importance of children experiencing parental deployment having an opportunity to connect with other children in the same situation.

Parents experiencing deployment may wish to identify opportunities for their children to connect with other young people whose parents serve in the military, Houston says.

The problems with communications between soldiers and their families aren’t limited to the time during deployment. Distinct challenges can arise before, during, and after deployment. Upon returning home, soldier-parents can face difficulties in communicating their experiences from wartime with their families.

“Children can tell when a parent is troubled. For soldiers stressed by memories of war or readjustment to civilian life, it helps to talk to children about what is going on,” Houston says. “Obviously you do not want to overwhelm children with information that is not age appropriate, but if a parent is having difficulties and no one is talking about it, then children may often feel that they are in some way to blame for the parent’s situation or that the parent is angry with them.”

Houston plans to use this research to develop communication best practices for military personnel and their families. He says he hopes such guidelines can help military families utilize modern communication technologies to help cope with deployment and the subsequent return to civilian life.

Researchers from the University of Oklahoma contributed to the study.

Source: University of Missouri