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Children of a Deployed Parent at High Risk for Psychological Problems

A new study by military doctors and researchers finds that a third of military children who have a parent deployed in a war zone are at high risk for psychological problems. The study surveyed military spouses of deployed Army soldiers with children aged 5 to 12, according to CNN.com.

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 should 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 no one can deny. “Children struggle when their parents deploy. I don’t think anyone will struggle with that,” Davis said.

“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. “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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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