December was a good month for the US military in Iraq; not a single casualty was reported. Unfortunately, the story was not as rosy in Afghanistan, where 20 service members died -not including the 7 CIA officers who tragically died last week.  When we see footage of military funerals on films (e.g., Kavin Bacon’s “Taking Chance”), documentaries (HBO’s “Section 60″), or on the news, our thoughts are usually with the surviving family, as we can understand how difficult and devastating it must be to adapt to the death of a loved one.  However, outside of the military community, there is little discussion about how war-time casualties affect other military families who are about to be deployed or are currently deployed. Thus, the difficulties and struggles that families endure when adjusting to the deployment of a parent are most likely compounded during war times given the increased risks that deployed personnel endure. Surprisingly, little is know about how children of deployed military personnel compare to their non-military peers in regards to their academic, social, and emotional functioning. Specifically, we know very little about the factors that may contribute to, or hamper, the children’s adjustments to parental deployment during war times.

In order to address these issues, a team of scientists at the RAND Corporation conducted an interesting study that was just published on the prestigious journal “Pediatrics”. The sample for the study included over 1,500 military children (11 to 17 years of age) and non-deployed parent/caregiver. These children and their parents/caregivers participated in an extensive phone interview that covered a number of domains, such as academics and behavior problems, anxiety, peer functioning, parental mental health, family functioning, etc. The investigators were interested primarily in two questions: How the military children compares to the national average in their levels of emotional and behavioral difficulties; and 2) what factors contribute to more or less difficulties during parental deployment and reintegration.

The results:

Below you can see a graph comparing military kids (dark bars) and the national average in mean behavioral and emotional difficulties for all age groups.

Emotional and behavioral problems in children of military families

Children of military families endorsed significantly more emotional and behavioral problems than then non-military peers at all age groups. For example, when looking at only anxiety, 30% of the military children endorsed clinical levels of anxiety. In contrast, the rates of anxiety problems in these age groups among the general US population is closer to 10%.

Predictors of difficulties during deployment:

The authors found a number of factors that were related to more difficulties adjusting to parental deployment. These included:

1. Older kids had more difficulties than younger kids.

2. Girls had more difficulty than boys.

3. Those living in military housing had less difficulties than those renting non-military homes/apartments.

4. Parental emotional distress (on the part of the non-deployed parent) was also associated with more difficulties adjusting to deployment on the part of the child.

5. Length of deployment (longer deployment) was also associated with more adjustment difficulties.

Predictors of difficulties during reintegration:

The authors also examined what factors contributed to difficulties adjusting to parental reintegration after deployment.

1. Older kids had more difficulties than younger kids.

2. Girls had more difficulties than boys.

3. Length of deployment (longer deployment) was also associated with more adjustment difficulties.

In sum, the study provides some compelling evidence that children of military families experience significantly more emotional and behavioral difficulties than their non-military peers. This also provides evidence for the need to create more effective programs that address the needs of these families before, during, and after parental deployment. The study also provides some insight on how to improve current programs. For example, more emphasis on older children may be needed as these seem to have the most difficulty. Also, why are families living in military housing better adjusted to deployment than families renting their own place? This could be do to increased access to key resources among those living in military housing. However, it may also be due to other factors that contribute to the decision -or need- to live in military housing vs. non-military apartments, etc.
Chandra, A., Lara-Cinisomo, S., Jaycox, L., Tanielian, T., Burns, R., Ruder, T., & Han, B. (2009). Children on the Homefront: The Experience of Children From Military Families PEDIATRICS, 125 (1), 16-25 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-1180ResearchBlogging.org

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One Response to “My daddy is off to war” – Children of military families struggle to adjust.

  1. N.Cole says:

    Very interesting research. I am learning about military deployment effectiveness on Children for my College topic!

    Thank you for your valuable research!

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