CPSE Research: How Books Can Help Children Cope with Military Deployment

Bibliotherapy may help children cope with parental deployment, CPSE research suggests.
Boys with dad in uniform.
Tubbs' husband—an Air Force veteran—with their three children. Courtesy of Aimee Tubbs.

Using books as a therapeutic tool, known as bibliotherapy, dates back to 300 BC, when reading was described as “healing for the soul.” In this century, McKay School researchers have used books to heal in a number of circumstances: helping at-risk students, promoting social and emotional learning, aiding children grieving the suicide of a parent, and even using Harry Potter to encourage conversational skills. Earlier this year, a McKay School alumna and three professors from the Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education have found yet another application for bibliotherapy: helping children cope with a parent’s military deployment.

The Study 
School psychologist Aimee Tubbs (EdS ’15), Professors Ellie Young and Melissa Heath, and Associate Dean Tina Taylor began their research by asking the question, “What books related to military deployment are available for children ages 3–8?” Their final sample included 30 children’s books, which they analyzed for the following characteristics: gender and race/ethnicity of the main character (MC) and deployed person, characteristics of deployment (length, phase of deployment, branch of service, etc.), MC’s response to deployment, and MC’s coping strategies. Their findings were published earlier this year in Reading Horizons: A Journal of Literacy and Language Arts

Why Military? 
Tubbs, the primary investigator of the study, is no stranger to deployment. Her father was often deployed while in the Air National Guard. But it was her husband’s deployment in the Air Force that initially sparked her interest in bibliotherapy. “This is my first bibliotherapy project,” said Tubbs. “I became interested in using books to help my own children when my husband began leaving on multiple military deployments after the life-changing events of 9/11.”

In addition to helping her own children, she also wanted to help other parents. “I also noticed that other military mothers I knew were looking for books about deployment to read to their children. . . . I started this research because I had a deep desire to help others connected with the military. I wanted to provide something that could help someone else who may be having children experiencing difficulties because of a loved one’s deployment.” 

Child reading to cardboard cutout of father.
One of Tubbs' sons reading a book next to cardboard cutout of his father. Courtesy of Aimee Tubbs.

Why Books? 
The most recent data shows that approximately half of the two million deployed U.S. military personnel were separated from their children. Most families effectively cope with deployment, but many children still struggle with sadness, depression, difficulty sleeping or eating, and anxiety over the safety of the deployed parent. Children’s books are a great resource for a number of reasons. 

1. They provide a safe space for children to express their emotions. “It is often easier to talk about the characters in a story and their struggles and coping skills before talking about our own,” said Young. 

2. Children’s books are accessible and easy to use. “Most books can be found through online shopping platforms such as Amazon or through local libraries and interlibrary loan options,” said Tubbs. “A person does not necessarily need advanced training to read a book with a child and discuss what can be learned from the story.”

3. Third, for families that don’t live close to military installations, books can be especially helpful. Such families often have less access to support than other military families. 

man and woman smiling at bench.
Tubbs with her husband. Courtesy of Aimee Tubbs. 

Surprise Findings
The books they analyzed featured a number of different coping strategies for the child of a deployed parent, the most common being to find ways to stay connected to the deployed parents (and it was this strategy that prompted Tubbs and her children to create a cardboard cutout of Dad). Others included talking with an adult, drawing pictures, and engaging in physical activity. 

But Tubbs was surprised by one coping strategy that she hadn’t encountered in other academic literature—pride in the deployed parent’s military service. “[I]n considering my own family’s situation, we personally did feel pride in the sacrifice and service of my husband. Although at the time I did not necessarily consider it a coping strategy.” 

“Many military families do quite well meeting the demands of deployment,” said Young. “However, for those times when difficulty arises, books continue to be a convenient and personal way for parents to build positive relationships with their children.” Whatever your child is going through, just start with the oldest trick in the book—literally. 

Writer: Anessa Pennington
Contact: Cynthia Glad 801-422-1922