Surprise family reunions may not be good for soldiers’ children, mental health experts say


A scene from the Lifetime Television series "Coming Home." (Lifetime Television)
September 2, 2011

If a producer could dream up the ideal TV show, it would probably look something like this: a lot of drama, a heroic storyline, a bit of reality, a famous host and a set of characters about to receive the surprise of their lives. That’s the formula for TV’s latest phenomenon: surprise reunions between returning service members and their families. Two shows that debuted this year — “Coming Home” on Lifetime and “Surprise Homecoming” on TLC — engineer surprise reunions and capture tearful moments on camera.

But mental health experts say the surprise reunions aren’t necessarily happy and healthy beneath the surface.

They obscure the possibility that children are caught in a jumble of emotions, including sorrow resulting from the separation and lingering confusion over why the parent left. The presence of an audience and TV cameras, the experts say, may add pressure to an already overwhelming moment.

For decades, research has shown that children with deployed military parents suffer higher levels of anxiety and emotional problems than their peers in nonmilitary families. But a 2010 study uncovered a less obvious point: After the homecomings, spouses’ anxiety returned to normal, but children’s remained high. For one-third, it was “clinically significant,” meaning severe enough to warrant attention from a professional.

Catherine Mogil, clinical psychologist with UCLA’s FOCUS project, which assists military families, worked on the study. She says the reason for kids’ persistent anxiety isn’t clear, but military kids face frightening questions — could something terrible happen? — that they normally wouldn’t face until they’re older.

When you surprise anxious kids in front of TV cameras, she says, it’s hard to predict the results. “Surprises, even when positive, can be challenging and really emotionally laden for them,” Mogil says.

Catherine Meyers, executive producer of “Surprise Homecoming,” and Tom Forman, chief executive of RelativityReal, which produces “Coming Home,” both say they relied on parents’ assessments of their kids’ ability to handle the surprise.

“This is not a show about sticking cameras in on people’s personal moments when they’re not wanted,” Forman says, adding that the show tries to feature people who were already planning surprises. “We are invited in by moms and dads who want to share this moment with the country, who are incredibly proud of their service both at home and abroad, and who believe their kids are going to have an unbelievably fun day and look back on this as the best home movies they’ve ever shot.”

The problem is that parents may not know what their kids feel, Mogil says. Parents often try to protect children by not discussing frightening or confusing thoughts. And kids may not volunteer their fears because they’re trying to protect their parents. “The kids, sometimes they’re keeping it all in,” Mogil says.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Allen Hughes of Suffolk, Va., surprised his 12-year-old daughter, Holly, now 13, on “Coming Home” after he spent seven months on an aircraft carrier. Holly thought she was being interviewed for a special about military families, and the producers had arranged for her to perform a violin solo at a concert with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. After she played, the show’s host — Matt Rogers, a former “American Idol” contestant — announced Holly’s father.

“I was pretty much standing there, mouth open, frozen with shock,” Holly says. “I was like, ‘Is it really him?’ ”

The cameras relay everything: a puzzled smile as Holly adjusts her glasses, a gasp when she sees her father, urgency as she races to him across the stage. The microphones capture their sobs, and the heart-rending interviews show — and inspire — more tears when Holly and her father discuss the moment.

Hughes says the tears represented relief. “Just the relief that it’s finally over. I was finally back. I finally had Holly in my arms. And for her, she finally had her dad back.”

It may be impossible to watch this reunion, or the dozens like it, without being incredibly moved by all of it: the bonds of love, the anguish, the sacrifice and the unfairness of separation. Both Forman and Meyers say they created these shows for the same reason: They and their colleagues cried while watching popular YouTube videos of surprise reunions that seemed to bring families resolution.

“I think everybody likes being reminded that there’s a happy ending to many of these stories,” Forman says.

The reality, though, is that many service members will be deployed again. And while many veterans and families adjust well, the military population, in general, faces troubles that begin when the troops return: higher rates of divorce, unemployment and homelessness than nonveterans; mental health issues; and the difficulty of reconciling profound wartime experiences with the mundaneness of daily life.

The shows can’t make clear how deployment may change people.

“Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse,” says Stephen Xenakis, a Washington child and adolescent psychiatrist who is also a retired Army brigadier general. “But there’s no way that you can go through such a significant event in your life . . . and not come back as a very different person.”

Even when parents are not in dangerous combat positions, their children may not understand the difference. Although Hughes served on an aircraft carrier and never worried about his safety, his daughter was concerned.

Army Sgt. Lawrence Lee, a single parent, was reunited on “Surprise Homecoming” with his 6-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son after a year in Iraq. Before the reunion, interviews show his daughter hang her head in tears when asked whether she misses her father. Later in the show, Lee suddenly walks into church during a Sunday service, singing an a cappella “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” His son, standing near the pulpit with his sister, cries out, “Daddy!” and begins to sob.

Although Lee says the show gave him a joyful memory that will last a lifetime, the experience has been very emotional. “I watched it repeatedly, and I cried,” he says. “I never want to put my children in a position where they have to miss me that much. I never want to make them feel like one day I’ll leave and not come back.”

A phrase often heard when discussing the reunions is “tears of joy.” But Xenakis says kids may not develop the emotional maturity to cry tears of joy until mid-adolescence. Adults may be projecting their own reactions onto the children.

“I would, from a policy standpoint and as a senior Army doctor, say that I would discourage families, and I would discourage the Army, from in any way agreeing to this kind of filming and programming,” Xenakis says.

In fact, both production companies worked closely with the military.

“One of the concerns was that for such an emotional event — coming home — that introducing cameras into it would take advantage of that and that it would affect that reunion in some way or that the surprise would be more than the children could deal with,” says Lt. Col. John Clearwater, the Army’s film and television liaison. “But having done this now for a full season with both programs, we haven’t seen any of that.”

The problem, experts say, isn’t bad intentions. The parents, in particular, are doing the best they can, Mogil says. The problem is that we don’t know everything there is to know about how children emotionally process such surprising and public events when they’re already in a heightened state of anxiety. That fact alone, she says, should encourage preparation instead of surprise.

Holly Hughes, who says that she’s happy that she and her dad participated and that things are “pretty much back to normal,” hopes the show will help the public understand what military kids go through.

“They probably don’t understand how it feels to have a family member deployed,” Holly says. “It’s really kind of like a piece of you is gone.”

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