families who participated in the original military FOCUS
program shows it significantly improves children’s behavior and
family functioning and reduces anxiety and depression among
all family members.
It does this by offering fun and engaging ways for family
members to learn and practice key skills that support resilience
and recovery in the wake of war’s many challenges, says William
Saltzman, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California,
Los Angeles, who co-created the program with UCLA
psychiatrist Patricia Lester, MD.
The original FOCUS protocol includes four core elements:
• Real-time computerized psychological health check-ins
with customized feedback and referrals for all family members.
• Family-specific psychoeducation on issues such as PTSD,
traumatic brain injury and the impact of stress on families and
• A chance for service members and their families to reflect
on their differing experiences during the service member’s
deployment and share them with family members. The team
then helps the family take these “narrative timelines” and create
a shared family narrative from them—a key feature of the
intervention, Saltzman adds.
“The narratives help to bridge estrangement and the
misunderstandings and misattributions that can grow up across
these years of deployment,” he says.
• Resilience training in emotional regulation, goal setting,
problem-solving, communication, and managing trauma
and loss, using tools to enhance emotional awareness and
communication skills. An example is the “feeling thermometer,”
which uses color coding to help family members talk about
their emotions — green for a comfortable, “good to go” feeling,
and red for such uncomfortable feelings as anger.
The newer adaptations are helping specific audiences
improve their resiliency as well, research is showing. One is
the couples intervention, which the UCLA team created in a
partnership with Purdue University’s Military Family Research
Institute. Couples are important to target because by the time
they come for services, they often feel overwhelmed, depressed
and anxious about deployment and related stressors, Lester says.
To fit their needs, the team modified the core elements of
FOCUS to address dyadic coping, marital satisfaction and
marital functioning, rather than parenting. They paid extra
attention to the couple’s narrative timelines because military
couples are separated for long periods and often lack a good
understanding of what their partner’s life has been like. “Having
the opportunity to map that all out and look at it is really
helpful for them,” Lester says.
First-year data on 202 couples are promising. In a paper
under review, the team finds that at six months, couples’
clinical depression scores were reduced by half, while self-reported functioning as a couple rose significantly. A paper
out this month in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review
describes more of these adaptations, which also include mobile
applications and video teleconferencing so soldiers and families
can access them from anywhere.
It’s gratifying to see the way these programs make a
difference in the lives of military families, says Saltzman.
“By increasing and improving the natural resilient processes
in the family, it appears that all family members may benefit
and better contend with ongoing stressors,” he says.
Home-based coping tools
Another resiliency intervention created by University of
Michigan psychologist Michelle Kees, PhD, and social worker
Kate Bullard is called HomeFront Strong, designed to foster
resilience in the partners of deployed service members using
psychological tools and friendship support. It’s one of several
evidence-driven interventions under the University of Michigan’s
M-SPAN, or Support Programs and Networks program, tailored
to military and veteran families. Data from HomeFront Strong
also will be used as part of a longitudinal study looking at how
Practical tips for military parents
An online tool is available to help veteran and
service member families learn healthy ways to
address the many parenting challenges that can
arise during deployment, reintegration and long
after coming home.
“Parenting for Service Members and
Veterans,” a free Web-based course available
at www.veteranparenting.org, features six
modules on topics ranging from positive
approaches to disciplining your child, to
parenting effectively in the face of your
own emotional and physical difficulties, to
promoting positive parent-child communication.
The course is part of an integrated mental
health strategy launched by the Veterans
Administration and the Department of Defense
in 2009, whose aim is to turn broad, joint
mental health recommendations into specific,
Psychologist Peter Shore, PsyD, of the VA
Northwest Health Network, led a national team
of parenting experts to develop the course. In
addition to a core curriculum, it features videos
from two military families who openly discuss
parenting challenges in the context of military life.
“These families opened their homes and
hearts in the spirit of helping others,” says
Shore. “I believe our learners will be touched
by the videos, and I hope this course will aid in
their learning and healing.”
— JAMIE CHAMBERLIN