DOD Website Connects Military Kids
By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 2012 A new Defense Department website is connecting military children -- whether it’s across town or across the world -- who are dealing with a loved one’s deployment.
The website, Military Kids Connect, offers military children an online community where they can learn about deployments, recognize and share feelings, and develop coping skills.
Psychologists from the DOD’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology developed the site to build on military kids’ strength and resilience, especially as they deal with the unique stressors of military life.
“We felt by connecting military kids with each other, through providing peer-to-peer support, they’d be able to build on the resilience they have already and learn new coping skills to deal with deployments,” explained Kelly Blasko, a psychologist from the center, dubbed T2.
The site features tools for all stages of the deployment cycle -- from predeployment through reintegration.
To help prepare kids for an impending separation, the site includes an interactive map that offers information on numerous deployment locations. The aim here is to “give them positive information, rather than the negative information they hear on the phone or on the news,” Blasko said.
“We tried to focus on the fact they get increased responsibility at home [during a deployment], as well as new routines, because their parent is gone,” she said. “We developed activities around that.”
The post-deployment section deals heavily with the reconnection process upon the service member’s return, Blasko added.
While the sections share a common theme, site developers customized information and activities to best suit children’s age-specific needs. They created tracks for three different age groups: 6 to 8, 9 to 12 and 13 to 17.
“We wanted to develop content around the different challenges that these kids face during the different phases of deployment,” Blasko explained.
Kids react to deployment-related stress in different ways, she noted. Teens may isolate more, act out, and may even get involved with drugs and alcohol. Tweens often rely on their parents for feedback and acknowledgement, and when a parent is absent, that can create a void. And younger children may regress due to anxiety, she added.
“The focus really is on the kids and providing them with coping skills for the different challenges they face,” she said.
Blasko said they came up with the idea for the site after noting a marked gap in resources for military kids dealing with deployments. T2 offers a deployment website called afterdeployment.org for troops, veterans and their families, with a module for parents helping children with deployments. But that wasn’t enough, she said.
“We realized that helping children with deployment was actually larger, and that particular module didn’t really address the issues that military children face,” she added.
Experts believed a site dedicated to aiding kids through the deployment cycle “would be an incredible contribution to help kids with this challenging time,” she said. To gain ideas from a military kid’s perspective, they hosted a series of focus groups with children 9 to 17 about what they’d like to see on the site.
“One of the things they felt was missing was an online military kids community,” Blasko said. “We developed an online social network forum where [teens and tweens] can post comments and get replies -- where they can share things about deployment.”
To further the dialogue, the site features videos with military kids and their parents discussing situations they’ve dealt with and the coping skills they’ve employed.
In one video story, a soldier talks with her three daughters about their feelings when she deployed to Afghanistan. They discussed how they felt when she left and their experiences while she was gone.
“I felt kind of sad at first,” one of her daughters said, “but I knew she was helping other people, so it kind of eased away my pain inside.”
Other popular add-ons include sections where students can create scrapbooks, participate in instructional and video vignettes, and in interactive games that wrap around the deployment cycle.
One of the site’s most-popular features is a section where kids can select the weather and time from among the six most common deployment locations. Once selected, the information always shows up on their home page. This enables the kids to feel a connection with a parent deployed, for example, to Afghanistan, Blasko noted.
As kids progress through the site, they can earn passport stamps in a virtual passport by completing games and activities.
While the site is geared for the younger generation, adults shouldn’t hesitate to log on, Blasko said. A parent module explains behavioral changes they should keep an eye out for and parenting strategies they can employ to help their kids through tough times.
The site also features a module for educators to raise awareness of military children’s challenges and to help educators recognize in-school behaviors that may indicate deployment-related anxiety.
Blasko acknowledged concerns regarding Internet safety for the online kids community. Developers kept this in mind throughout the process, she said, and have exceeded security requirements. For example, parents must give permission for children to use the message boards.
“We have been working really hard to provide a safe online community for these kids,” she said.
With the site’s first iteration under way, experts already are forging the path ahead. For the next version, they’d like to focus on three areas, Blasko said. First, they’d like to improve the online parent-child interaction, perhaps by having parents provide a stamp of acknowledgement when their child is on the site. They’re also hoping to engage deployed parents more by offering a game the deployed parent and child can play together.
Next, they’d like to focus on post-deployment, which is often the most difficult time of the deployment cycle, Blasko noted.
“So many changes occur during deployment for the kids and parents,” she explained. “When they come home, just getting back to the family routine gets very difficult and even more difficult if there’s been post-traumatic stress disorder or some type of problem that results from deployment.”
Finally, they’d like to enhance the site’s teen content. “We really think it is certainly an at-risk population, and [we want to] be sure we give them as many skills to deal with anxiety as possible,” she said.
Blasko said the project has been rewarding both professionally and personally. “I really admire military kids and the strength that they have given the different challenges they face,” she added. “It really is an honor to serve them some way through the website and connecting them with other kids, and parents.”
One of the nice things about the website, she noted, is that it teaches coping skills now. “They can carry that through their whole life and deal with things that come up that we can’t even anticipate,” she said.