There are roughly 1.7 million children in the U.S. with at least one parent on active duty in the military and another 710,000 with parents in reserve units (according to Defense Department statistics for 2006). Studies of children left behind when one of their parents heads off to war have suggested that they experience an increase in behavioral problems.
Children of deployed soldiers appear to have problems with sleep, stress, anxiety, and schoolwork. A recent study, published in the January issue of Pediatrics, adds to the growing body of information about the impact of parental military service.
When the primary caregivers themselves had mental health problems, the children were at higher risk for emotional, academic, and social relationship problems.
The researchers focused on the emotional health and functioning of the children and the non−deployed parents left behind, They interviewed the children, ages 11−17, and the primary (non−deployed) caregivers in 1507 households in which a parent was on active duty. They questioned them about the period of deployment and the period of return and reintegration of the service member into the family unit.
When the primary caregivers themselves had mental health problems, the children were at higher risk for emotional, academic, and social relationship problems. This finding suggests that interventions aimed at helping the families of deployed soldiers must target the caregivers as well as the children to be fully effective and suggests the need for readily available mental health assessment and treatment for the parent remaining at home.
The longer the deployed parent was absent from the family, the greater the number of difficulties experienced by the child during the absence. This challenges the assumption that families adjust and deployment becomes easier as the time stretches on and suggests that families should be assessed periodically throughout the deployment.
The authors suggest that over time, children may have increasing difficulty juggling new household responsibilities along with their academics, a fact which contributes to falling grades and increasing behavioral problems.
When the parent returns, everything does not always return smoothly to normal. The older the children, the more difficult the reintegration period. This suggested to the researchers that older children assumed more adult responsibility during deployment.
The study highlights the need for research−informed interventions to help military families deal with the stresses of deployment. Educating the families as well as the professionals and community members who interact with children of deployment may aid in early recognition and interventions and prevent more serious emotional, academic, and family problems.
Providing appropriate mental health assessment and interventions to the non−deployed caregiver is also critical. And finally, understanding and meeting the challenges of return and reintegration is essential to promote effective functioning of reunited military families.