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.