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Site keeps kids connected with deployed parents

Published: 11:38AM January 23rd, 2012

Jessica Hall/Northwest Guardian Jason and John Carlson play "What's Different?" a game on MilitaryKidsConnect.org, a website designed for military children to cope with deployments.

Ten-year olds Jason and John Carlson stare intently at the family computer as they play an online game together. They are comparing two photos to identify the differences, but the photos are not ordinary scenes.

They are images from a country that their father will eventually be deployed to as a Soldier in the U.S. Army. The images include tapestries displayed at a bazaar and a table full of foods.

Their parents, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Carlson, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord with the 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, and Robin Carlson are hopeful that this site, www.MilitaryKidsConnect.org, will help their sons through the next deployment.

“It will be really helpful to learn about the place (their dad) goes to,” said Mrs. Carlson, speaking of the many videos on the site designed to educate Families on the culture and people of the countries. “Last time he was deployed there was one Sesame Street video. It’s really nice to have something like this with more information and activities.”

The site www.MilitaryKidsConnect.org launched Wednesday as a tool to help children of all military branches separated from family members because of deployments connect with other children in the same situation, as well as help them come up with ideas to cope with their stress. The site was created by psychologists at the Department of Defense’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2) at JBLM when they identified that no site existed just for kids. Other sites, including www.AfterDeployment.org, discuss common issues concerning families and deployment but was not designed to be used by kids. Their tag line is “Kids deploy too,” a reference to the stress they experience directly related to their parent’s absence.

“Military kids have a lot of strength. Military Kids Connect doesn’t assume something is wrong, they just need a little help to get through (the deployment),” said Dr. Kelly Blasko, the T2 psychologist who spearheaded the site’s development. The site has three tracks, one for children 6 to 8, another for tweens 9 to 12 and the third for teenagers 13 to 17. All of the content, including games and videos, were designed for all ages. The message board is only open to tweens and teens, after getting permission from parents. Upon registering on the site the child can personalize it by choosing what country their parents are deploying to.

“Military families and kids already deal with a lot with moving and new schools. There’s a lot of transitioning; when you add a deployment in, that adds another stressor,” Blasko said. “This site is designed to help kids with the stress and strain they feel.”

Each age group handles stress differently. The site has information for parents and educators on how to identify normal reactions, such as reverting to habits previously outgrown or arguing more with parents, as well as extreme reactions like high levels of aggression and major changes in grades. Many children also take on more responsibilities in the home during deployments and often have trouble managing being a kid with those tasks.

Games like “My House” make responsibilities like cleaning the house fun, and “The Amazing Wardrobe” teaches users how children dress in the country their parents are deployed to. The site is designed to not only normalize the idea of deployments but also teach children about the country in which their parents serve.

“The safety of the deployed parent is both a fear of the parent at home and the child. (It’s hard to not worry) when watching the news and it only mentions violence and death counts. The site provides information about the countries, culturally, so it isn’t as scary of a place,” Blasko said.

Another feature of the site, called “Where Are You Going?” features a short video overview of the country and category choices, including culture and food. By learning about the country, psychologists like Blasko hope to make countries seem less scary than the news often depicts them to be.

While developing the site, T2 reached out to military families from every service branch to share their experiences with deployments. Videos feature kids of all ages sharing their tips for coping. Some ideas include volunteering, counting down days with jellybeans and creating dolls with a photo of the deployed parent.

“Deployment really connects kids as adversity often connects people,” Blasko said. “They want an opportunity to share their experience, either in a video or on the message board.”

The site conforms to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act since it does not store any personal data (name, address, email) from children. Message boards are moderated for inappropriate posts and moderators will send messages with resources on the site to any user they suspect could be in danger of hurting themselves.

T2 is currently working on adding content to the site, including more countries, more on the stresses of homecomings two-player games that site managers hope kids will play with the deployed parent.

Carlson hopes the games will be available when he deploys as a way to connect to his sons while he’s gone. Robin added that the site will help their sons’ civilian friends understand deployments.

“The site has tools to help the boys so they know what to expect, but also their civilian friends so they know how to help them during the deployment,” she said.

Blasko hopes to grow the Military Kids Connect site with as many kids as possible who share it with their peers. “It helps both of them and creates a support network,” she said. “I really admire these kids and it’s an honor to help serve them.”