By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist
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 home caregivers (or non-deployed parent) and their children, age 11 to 17, to learn what impact deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan are having.
The study found that youth who experience parental deployment suffer more “emotional difficulties” in connecting to families, engaging in school work and mixing with peers than do children of like age across the country.
That military children are more stressed in wartime was not a revelation. But researchers were surprised to learn their problems deepened with longer or more frequent deployments, in the view of non-deployed parents. This challenged 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.”
“We are seeing that wear and tear from the multiple months of deployment” on home caregivers can “then does trickle down to the child in many ways,” Chandra said.
The study, presented as an article in Pediatrics magazine, was paid for by the National Military Family Association (NMFA). Last June through August researchers interviewed a large pool of families who had applied for Operation Purple, a free summer camp program sponsored by NMFA to help military children cope with the stress of war.
Non-deployed parents were interviewed too but separately from their children. Participants were asked about service member deployment history, difficulties for children during deployment and the service member’s reintegration with the family on arriving home.
They also were asked about the overall well-being of the child and home caregiver.
The study’s authors conceded that surveying families already motivated to send kids to free camp through Operation Purple may make them “distinct” from other military families regarding level of stress.
Fifty-eight percent of children surveyed had a parent in the Army either active duty, Reserve or Guard. Twenty percent were Air Force and 19 percent Navy. Marine Corps youth were underrepresented at 13 percent. Most participants were families of mid-grade or senior enlisted members.
Ninety-five percent of the children had experienced at least one parental deployment, an average of 11 months, in the previous three years. Thirty-eight percent of the children had a parent deployed when surveyed.
The results show that:
• Older youth and girls 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 non-deployed caregiver, which was the mother for 95 percent of respondents, reported poorer mental health herself 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 on his or her return.
• Girls report more problems in adjusting to the return of a deployed parent.
• Families living on base reported fewer problems than those living off bases, perhaps because the support system is closer at hand or an on-base family is more attuned to service life and its challenges, Chandra suggested.