Military deployment results in a significant risk for mental health issues for the spouses and kids left behind according to research conducted by the Center for Military Health Policy Research (Child Trends, July 22, 2013).
With over two million children having parents who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, the research focused on the impact of deployment on families, citing four reasons why children and parents are at risk.
- “Deployment is stressful, even for the non-deployed.” How children adapt when a parent is away depends a great deal on how the remaining spouse deals with the situation. In addition to the typical problems of being a single parent, there is the special burden of dealing with the increased anxiety felt by children and spouses of a deployed parent. Anxiety is ever-present—“Will my mom or dad return home?”
- “Young children sometimes blame themselves.” It’s difficult to help a young child make sense of a parent’s apparent sudden absence. Kids’ reactions vary with age. Preschoolers tended to have more issues with generalized fearfulness and regression in their behavior, whereas toddlers exhibited more temper tantrums or sleep problems. Older children were more likely to experience anxiety issues and emotional or behavioral problems at a rate of almost double that of the general population.
- “Cumulative stress can put children at risk.” Deployment is not a single event but an ongoing process, having continuing effects on family life. Relationships change when a parent is away, affecting a child’s attachment to both parents. The pressure on the non-deployed parent increases with multiple deployments, placing an added strain on family life.
The research indicated that older teens had more academic problems, whereas younger children, particularly girls had more issues with anxiety. Children were more likely to have difficulties if the parent remaining at home was not functioning well, or if communication patterns in the family were problematic.
- “The end of deployment can bring new challenges.” It can be difficult for the returning parent to fit back into their family, as relationships and roles may have changed in their absence. The research indicated that youngsters reported the most significant issues for them were figuring out how to integrate the returning parent back into the family routine (68 percent), followed by concern regarding their parent’s next deployment (47 percent of the sample).
- Some service members return home with physical problems. Other problems are less obvious but just as severe, with an estimated one in six deployed military members from Iraq or Afghanistan returning home with significant emotional problems. Kids may feel that the parent that they knew and loved is not the same parent who returned from a war.
These problems are not inevitable. Part two of this series will focus on what military families can do to decrease the likelihood of these problems.