Research has begun to document the challenges faced by members of the U.S. military in deploying for war and reintegrating into life at home. But little is known about how wartime experience and parental deployments are affecting the children from military families. A RAND study commissioned by the National Military Family Association addressed this issue. The research is among the first to explore how these children are faring academically, socially, and emotionally during an extended period of wartime. Results show that children from military families studied may be experiencing above-average levels of emotional and behavioral difficulties, relative to national norms. Further, longer periods of deployment were associated with greater levels of challenges both during deployment and afterward.
That’s from a description of a study conducted by the RAND research organization. It was done by RAND’s Center for Military Health Policy Research, the fact sheet for which is here. The survey should be considered as a starting point for future research and not definitive regarding its various conclusions.
RAND researchers surveyed 1,500 military families that had had one or more parents deployed overseas in the past three years. Children surveyed were between the ages of 11 and 17 and were 53% boys. It was a telephone survey and its results were compared to those reported by representative samples of Americans generally. So questions yet to be answered include how the demographics of the RAND sample compare to those of the general population, whether the population that the RAND sample was compared to had experienced some form of extended parental absence, etc.
As I said, the RAND survey is a starting point. It suggests the need for more definitive studies.
What it found was that children with a deployed parent tend to exhibit higher levels of stress and acting out than do those in the general population. Further, the longer the deployment, the greater the levels of anxiety.
- Children in military families experienced emotional and behavioral difficulties at rates above national averages.
- About one-third of the children reported symptoms of anxiety, which is somewhat higher than the percentage reported in other studies of children.
- Self-reported problems varied by age and gender: Older youths and boys reported more difficulties with school and more problem behaviors, such as fighting; greater numbers of younger children (compared with older children) and girls reported anxiety symptoms.
Longer periods of parental absence tend to exacerbate the situation.
- Longer periods of parental deployment (within the past three years) were linked to greater difficulties in children’s social and emotional functioning, at least based on caregiver reports.
- Deployment-related challenges varied by age and gender: Older youths experienced greater school- and peer-related difficulties during deployment; girls experienced greater difficulties during the period of reintegration than did boys.
- Children whose caregivers had better self-reported mental health were better able to cope with the deployment experience both during and after.
- Living on-base was linked with reduced difficulties both during and after deployment.
The report on the survey says that the Pentagon should consider the need for emotional/psychological support for children and spouses of deployed personnel.
I would add that laws are needed that prohibit family courts from penalizing deployed military personnel in custody decisions. If a child suffers emotional trauma from the fact of deployment (which is not hard to understand), the knowledge that the deployment can be used to remove that parent from the child’s life in a custody contest, won’t make matters any better.
The RAND study offers yet more backup for bills, some of which are already pending before state legislatures, that prohibit using military deployment to prejudice parents in custody matters.