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Military children face more emotional challenges as parental deployments grow longer, study finds

Published: Monday, December 7, 2009 - 01:50 in Psychology & Sociology

Children in military families may suffer from more emotional and behavioral difficulties when compared to other American youths, with older children and girls struggling the most when a parent is deployed overseas, according to a new RAND Corporation study. Researchers found that having a parent deployed for a longer period of time and having a non-deployed parent who has struggled with emotional problems were important factors associated with whether military children would struggle themselves, according to the study published online by the journal Pediatrics.

The findings are from a RAND survey that examined the wartime well-being of 1,500 children from military families from across the nation, surveying both the children and a non-deployed parent or other caregiver.

"Our study suggests that children of deployed service members face emotional and behavioral challenges," said Anita Chandra, the study's lead author and a behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "While this finding may seem intuitive, our study begins to shed more light on the nature of the problem. Much more work is needed to better understand these challenges and to improve ways to support children throughout the deployment cycle."

The RAND study is the largest to date that explores how the children of military members are faring academically, socially and emotionally during an extended period of wartime. The project was commissioned by the National Military Family Association, an independent nonprofit group that provides support and services to military families.

"Our nation did not anticipate such protracted conflicts. We owe it to military families to better understand and address the challenges they are facing today, and may face tomorrow," said Mary Scott, chairman of the board of governors of the National Military Family Association. "By commissioning this research, we are taking the first steps to do just that."

RAND researchers say the study was intended to provide a broad snapshot of the challenges facing military children and their families, particularly during deployment. In 2009, about 2 million U.S. children had a parent in either the active or reserve component of the military.

Researchers found that across all age groups, children from military families reported significantly higher levels of emotional difficulties than children in the general population. In addition, about one-third of the military children surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety, somewhat higher than the percentage reported in other studies of children.

The types of problems that children reported varied by age and gender. Older youths had more difficulties with school and more problem behaviors such as fighting, while younger children reported more symptoms of anxiety, according to the study. Girls had fewer problems in school and with friends, but reported more anxiety than boys.

The longer the period of time a parent had been deployed over the previous three years, the greater the chance that a child reported difficulties related to deployment such as taking on more responsibilities at home.

"Our findings suggest that the more time parents are away, the more likely it is that children will experience problems" said Sandraluz Lara-Cinisomo, a study co-author and RAND researcher.

The impact of more cumulative months of deployment was more pronounced among girls, particularly during the reintegration period once a parent returns home. Researchers say this may be linked to girls taking on additional household duties when a parent is deployed and issues related to connecting emotionally with an absent parent, who is usually a father.

Chandra said researchers also were somewhat surprised to find that older children reported so many problems related to a parental deployment. Most earlier studies that examined military children focused on the problems experienced by younger children.

The study's findings that the emotional health of a non-deployed parent is closely linked with the emotional well-being of their children suggests that more services may be needed for the spouses of those who are deployed, Chandra said.

RAND researchers surveyed families that applied in 2008 for the National Military Family Association's "Operation Purple" camp, a free program for military children held at 63 sites across the nation. The mission of the Operation Purple program is to help children cope with the stresses of war. More than 12,000 children applied for the camps. More than 4,000 families were invited to participate in the RAND study.

The findings published by Pediatrics represent the first results from an ongoing project that is following military children for 12 months, surveying children and their families on three occasions to chart behavior and emotional issues over time. Results from the follow-up surveys will be reported in subsequent studies.

Among those surveyed, about 57 percent of the children studied had a parent in the Army, 20 percent in the Air Force and 17 percent in the Navy. The remainder had parents in the Marines or Coast Guard. About 63 percent of the parents were in the active component, with the rest in the National Guard or Reserve. The study found no significant differences among children based on what service a parent served in or whether they were a part of the active or reserve component of the military.

About 95 percent of the children surveyed had experienced at least one parental deployment over the three years before the start of the study and nearly 40 percent had a parent deployed at the time of the interview. Ages of the children ranged from 11 to 17 and 47 percent were girls.

Source: Rand Corporation 

Stress of war takes mental toll on military kids

Children of deployed service members at risk of psychological problems

Stress, strain on military families
Jan. 12: The stress of having loved ones serving on the front lines in the military can be especially difficult for children. NBC’s Dawn Fratangelo reports.

Nightly News

MSNBC and NBC News

updated 3:00 p.m. PT, Thurs., Aug 13, 2009

The years-long U.S. commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan is taking a significant toll on the children of service members, who are 2½ times more likely to develop psychological problems than American children in general, new research indicates.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, found that deployment of a parent was correlated to high stress levels in the parent who remains at home, which it said was linked to greater psychological impact on children.

The findings open a new window on the collateral damage wartime deployment can exact back at home.

Experts: Parents' deployment puts kids at high risk for problems

From Adam Levine
CNN Pentagon Supervising Producer

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A third of military children surveyed who have a parent deployed in a war zone are at "high risk" for psychological problems, according to a new study by military doctors and researchers.

The study, published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, surveyed military spouses of deployed Army soldiers with school-age children, aged 5 to 12. The questionnaire appraised the strain on the family of dealing with a parent deployed to the war zone.

Results found that stress levels were high for children and spouses of deployed troops but also that support networks from military to religious helped mitigate the problems.

The number of children found to be high-risk is more than 2½ times the national level and higher than historical military samples.

The authors surveyed 101 families in what they said was the first such evaluation since September 11, 2001, and the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Overall, there are more than 2 million U.S. military children, many of whom have parents who have deployed multiple times -- deployments that, for the first time since the Vietnam War, can occur as little as 12 months after returning from a previous deployment.

The study focused on families of active-duty soldiers living on base at Fort Lewis, Washington, and is just a "small snapshot," said one of the authors, Col. Beth Ellen Davis. She is the chief of Developmental Services at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington.

Davis said that more studies would have to be done to understand the impact on military children in other circumstances, like those with parents in other services, living off-base or in the National Guard, but that the results point to a problem nobody could deny.

"Children struggle when their parents deploy. I don't think anyone will struggle with that," Davis said.

The survey quantified what Davis had seen anecdotally in her work at the hospital.

"My perception in the school-age range and pre-school-age range was that how the at-home parent is doing is most predictive of how the child is coping," Davis said.

Almost half of the spouses surveyed were found to have a high level of stress, which the authors say has a significant impact on their child's ability to cope.

Parents surveyed said their children experienced a number of symptoms including "internalizing symptoms" like anxiety, frequent crying and worrying.

Interestingly, it is the return from deployment that is most stressful, according to three-quarters of those surveyed.

"On reunification, there is excitement, anticipation and relief, occasionally followed by emotional conflict as the service member reintegrates back into the family," wrote the surveyors.

Effects of deployment on families can be seen beyond the Fort Lewis survey.

At Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Gia Ellis' husband is deployed to Afghanistan for the second time. The mother of two said the return home is as stressful as the deployment itself.

"Trying to relinquish some of the responsibilities that we've had to take on and give it back to them," Ellis said last month. She was not a participant in the stress survey. "Letting go is very difficult. Very difficult to share the responsibility with your spouse and, 'Oh, yeah, you're in this family? I forgot.' "

Ellis said that this deployment has been easier on her in part because she is living on the base and has access to a support network of wives and staff.

The strain on families during the reintegration has parallels to families with spouses who travel a lot for business, said Frederic Medway, distinguished professor emeritus of psychology at the University of South Carolina.

Medway, who has studied the effects of family integration in military and non-military families, agreed with the new study's conclusion that there is a greater chance of family problems when the spouse comes back.

"That is when the husband and wife actually fight and talk about stuff," Medway said. "The service member comes back and doesn't feel a part of it and returns with his own baggage."

Much work still needs to be done to assess how these psychological effects play out over time, Medway said. His studies on families of the first Gulf War found that reintegration problems played out in a period lasting around six months to year.

Medway said that it is hard to compare studies from different wars but that duration does point to a key problem in the current conflicts, since many troops are redeploying after a year, meaning the family never really gets a chance to settle back down.

One surprising result of the new study was what factors were predictors of high-risk impact. Parents with a college education were less likely to have children at risk, and younger parents fared worse. Those with college education who were also employed had significantly less stress, which the study authors suggested could be a result of having access to additional support networks, adult interactions and income to relieve stress.

Length of deployment, military rank and children's age did not have an impact.

Medway said that one reason for the effect of education could be that those in lower social classes tend to deal with more mental health and marital issues in general.

"How far is the rubber band going to stretch?" Medway asked. Pre-existing problems are compounded by deployment.

Davis, co-author of the Fort Lewis-based survey, said that what the study revealed was that those feeling the brunt of the stress were younger families, which are the bulk of enlisted soldiers.

"What comes with enlistment is usually junior-ranking high-school graduates getting by enough to support a family but often times not (to) support child care outside the home," Davis explained. That demographic has higher stress because they lack support networks.

Davis said the study highlights the need to understand the impact of deployment on these at risk groups and make sure they have the support they need and "not assuming that everyone has the same needs."

She noted that there are resources for families and that more effort is being made to reach out to those who most need help "whether they ask for it or not."

Military children face more emotional challenges as parental deployments grow longer, study finds

Published: Monday, December 7, 2009 - 01:50 in Psychology & Science  

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