When Jose Perez left the Army in 2007, he struggled to connect with his three kids. He’d just returned, wounded, from his third deployment to Iraq, and he felt emotionally distant and detached from his children. Things were especially rough with his oldest son, who was then 9 years old. “He felt like I’d chosen something else over him,” Perez says.
After seeing a flier at a veterans center in Chino, Calif., Perez enrolled in Families OverComing Under Stress (FOCUS), a program that aims to build resilience and prevent the psychological problems that can stem from military life.
The FOCUS program consists of eight sessions, beginning with a psychological health assessment of the family using a standardized questionnaire.
“Very often, something comes to light that the parents weren’t aware of,” says psychiatrist Patricia Lester, director of the Nathanson Family Resilience Center at UCLA and the lead researcher behind the program. “They might be focusing on the child who is acting out and not notice that their other child is really depressed.” If this screening shows that a child or parent is at risk for anxiety or depression, the finding is immediately discussed with the family and, if necessary, the relevant family member is given a referral for treatment.
The initial assessment doesn’t just check for signs of trouble, Lester says, it also identifies strengths that a family can learn to use when they are needed.
One of the program’s most powerful elements, Lester says, is the narrative that families construct. Working together, family members create a graphic timeline of events that includes reassignments, deployments, difficult experiences that happened during deployment, and homecomings. Each person is also given a chance to chart his or her feelings and stress levels at these important times. “The timeline gives them a chance to see how their stress converges or diverges with other family members,” Lester says.
Perez says the timeline exercise gave him important insights into what his sons, now ages 9, 10 and 16, were thinking and feeling. Program sessions gave them a place where they could “lay everything down on the table,” Perez says. It wasn’t always easy. He worried about how much he should share, but in the end, the FOCUS exercises helped him put his experience into a story that could help his kids understand what he was going through. He gained a better understanding of his sons’ experiences, too, and they learned to more easily talk to one another.
The FOCUS program was cited in last year’s Institute of Medicine report for producing measurable results. Studies have shown that the program significantly improves family functioning and reduces child distress.
For families who can’t attend an in-person program, the Nathanson Family Resilience Center program offers FOCUS through videoconferencing. More than half a million people have now taken part in some aspect of FOCUS, says Ashley Jupin, an intervention delivery support specialist at the center.
Taking part in FOCUS was a turning point in his relationship with his kids, Perez says, especially in his dealings with his oldest son. “Our relationship now is not perfect, but it’s much better than it was,” he says. “Now he calls me when he’s having trouble with things like girls, and that’s a sign that he trusts me.”