Do Military Children Belong on Reality TV Reunion Shows?

military families, reality tv
Guaranteed tear-jerker, but are surprise reunions good for military kids?

There’s something that isn’t quite right about surprise reunions between deployed soldiers and their families. Especially when those reunions involve a parent and child.  Especially when those reunions are uploaded on YouTube or used as the basis of entertainment, as is the case for two new reality shows, TLC’s “Surprise Homecoming,” and Lifestime’s “Coming Home.”

The unscripted script goes something like this: child is lured to supposed event for military families. After somehow being featured front-and-center at the event, the crowd starts cheering. Child looks around to see what the big deal is. No, wait, could it be? That figure in the distance. Face goes from surprise to disbelief to raw, desperate emotions. Child runs to parent, everyone’s crying — them, the audience, you, producers, camera crew. Everyone.

Parent and child are interviewed afterward, credits roll. Happy ending. But is it really happy?

Some child psychologists aren’t so sure. Even though parents agree to participate in these shows — in fact, beg to — and even though the military has an office devoted to helping shows like this get made, many mental health experts say kids shouldn’t be subjected to it. They say just below the happy surface can be a jumble of emotions for kids, such as profound sadness and lingering confusion as to why the parent left in the first place.

We’ve known for a long time that kids whose parents have been deployed are at a higher risk for emotional anxiety and emotional problems than their peers. But only recent studies have shown that these same kids continue to have heightened anxiety, even after the parent returns. A third of them have high enough levels to be considered in need of professional attention, according to a piece on surprise reunions in the Washington Post:

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.

Still, producers of the shows defend their mission, arguing they only go when they’re wanted, when parents are also on board. Problem is, some parents might not even realize how heavy these situations for kids can be.

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.

Instead, Mogil urges parents to prepare the kids for the return of a parent, instead of putting together an elaborate surprise. We just don’t know enough, she says, about how children process emotional and surprising events in these heightened states of anxiety, no matter how good the intentions.

Even as one 13-year-old described her emotions as “tears of joy,” Stephen Xenakis, a Washington child and adolescent psychiatrist who is also a retired Army brigadier general, says that the maturity to shed “tears of joy” doesn’t come until mid-adolescence and that parents may be projecting their own reactions onto the younger children featured on the shows.

For the majority of Lifetime and TLC viewers — heck, the majority of Americans — the wars in the Middle East are not only physically far away, they’re are intellectually, politically and emotionally. We’re barely connected to it. So what makes us sit and watch? It’s one thing to get wrapped up in the lives of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, etc. But we should ask ourselves, what do we get from these shows? What do we get from the raw emotions, especially those of a child, when she unexpectedly looks across a room to see her mom? Or when a young boy pulls down Santa’s beard and realizes it’s actually the father he hasn’t seen for 18 months? I mean, it’s moving drama — one could get worked up into a puddle of tears just thinking about it, much less watching the scene unfold in a brilliantly edited 24 minutes plus commercial breaks.

But to what end?

Producers and some participants say it’s to help others understand what military families go through when one member is deployed. Is this really the way to do that? These shows come across more as feel-good entertainment — happy ending after happy ending — and hardly an insight to the high rates of divorce, unemployment and homelessness that veterans face. Where are the cameras to help us really understand the difficulty soldiers have navigating life back home after wartime experiences?

Do you watch these shows? Anyone out there in a military family? What do you think of these shows?


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