Multiple, lengthy wartime deployments by service members are taking an emotional toll on their children, who report being anxious or stressed at rates much higher than children nationwide, a new study concludes.
Researchers with the think tank RAND interviewed more than 1,500 people caring for military dependents, age 11 to 17, to learn what effects deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan are having.
The study found that young people suffer more “emotional difficulties” in connecting to families, engaging in school work and mixing with peers than do others of their age.
That military children are more stressed in wartime was not a revelation. But researchers were surprised to learn their problems appeared to deepen with longer or more frequent deployments. This challenges an assumption that children might, with repetition, get used to a parent being gone and later reintegrating with the family.
“We did think maybe these challenges would wane and people would get into adjustment mode,” said the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Anita Chandra. “And what we found was that cumulative months of exposure to deployment really seemed to hold up and present (more) challenges for families.”
The study, presented as an article in Pediatrics magazine, was paid for by the National Military Family Association. Last June through August, researchers interviewed a large pool of families who had applied for Operation Purple, a free summer camp program sponsored by the family association to help military children cope with the stress of war.
Parents who are not deployed were interviewed, but separately from their children. Participants were asked about service member deployment history, difficulties for children during deployment, and reintegration with the family on arriving home. They also were asked about the overall well-being of the child and the home caregiver.
Fifty-eight percent of children surveyed had a parent in the Army either on active duty or in the reserve or National Guard. Twenty percent were Air Force and 19 percent were Navy. Marine Corps youth were underrepresented at 13 percent. Most participants were families of midgrade or senior enlisted members.
Ninety-five percent of the children had experienced at least one parental deployment, an average of 11 months, in the past three years. Thirty-eight percent of the children had a parent who was deployed when they were surveyed.
The results show that:
Children who had experienced a parental deployment reported “significantly more” difficulties at school, within their family or dealing with peers.
Emotional and behavioral challenges were greater for children who experienced higher total months of parental deployment, suggesting that with time initial resilience breaks down and stressors of home life increase.
Challenges were greater for children whose nondeployed caregiver, which was the mother for 95 percent of respondents, reported poorer mental health from the stress of a service member’s deployment.
More months of deployment likely mean more problems for children in re-engaging with the absent parent upon his or her return.
Girls report more problems in adjusting to the return of a deployed parent. Chandra cited a several reasons for this. Girls appear to be more sensitive to a returned parent’s mood changes. Also, girls express more worry than do boys about how their parents get along. Girls worry more too about the next deployment.
The study, “Children on the Homefront,” is at www.pediatrics.org.
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