Child Trends 5 is a new monthly publication from Child Trends.
July 22, 2013
More than two million children in the U.S. have had a parent deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq. When
a parent goes to war - and often for years afterward - families are
deeply affected. Young children are especially vulnerable, because
they're physically and emotionally dependent on adults, and because
their brain development can be disrupted by high levels of stress. When
young children experience high levels of stress and trauma, the effects
can continue well after their parents' military service ends, when their
families may have less access to needed supports.
Deployment is stressful, even for the non-deployed
who stay behind may experience depression, anxiety, and loss of
financial and social support when their spouse or partner deploys.
Getting and maintaining child care and health care (particularly mental
health care) may be newly challenging. How well young children do under
the circumstances of deployment can depend on how successfully the
non-deployed parent (or other caregiver) copes with these burdens.
Young children sometimes blame themselves
children have little ability to comprehend the facts surrounding their
deployed parent's absence. They may feel responsible for causing the
losses they experience, and develop emotional or behavioral problems.
Children's reactions are greatly influenced by their age: preschoolers
may become more "clingy" or otherwise regress in their behavior, and may
openly express their fears; toddlers may become more withdrawn or sad,
or have more tantrums or sleep problems; babies may become listless or
irritable, or stop eating. Among older children with a deployed parent, emotional or behavioral problems, anxiety symptoms, and academic difficulties may occur.
Cumulative stress can put children at risk
Excessive stress changes brain processes that regulate emotion and behavior, and can have other damaging health effects.
The quality of relationships, particularly a young child's attachment
to his or her parents, can either buffer or magnify these negative
effects. When stress on the non-deployed parent reaches overload, good
parenting can suffer. Children are at greater risk for abuse or neglect when a parent is deployed. Longer deployments and multiple tours may be especially hard on families.
The end of deployment can bring new challenges
take time for a returning parent to reintegrate into family life. Young
children may need time to get reacquainted with a parent who, in some
cases, they don't remember. When returning military members have
suffered significant injuries - physical or psychological - young
children can react with fear and anxiety. Parental roles and styles of
coping and survival adopted during the period of deployment need to be
renegotiated. There is an increased risk for domestic violence
under these circumstances. About one in six service members returning
from deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq returns home with post-traumatic
stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and other serious mental
disorders. This adds to the risks faced by their children and families.
The composition of the armed forces has changed, and the system is straining to meet its needs
composition of America's armed forces has changed in many ways - more
mothers, more single parents, more National Guard and Reserves members.
Mothers with minor children now make up about one in six members of the active-duty military. Children in dual-military families (about six percent
of the total) can have their home lives completely overturned when the
second parent is deployed; temporary caregivers, such as grandparents,
may be poorly prepared for these new responsibilities. While the
military has a child care system that has been the envy of the civilian
world, the system currently strains to meet the need. With increased
numbers of parents in the Guard or Reserves (now nearly half of the total force),
many families don't have the supports, formal and informal, that come
with living on base. Promising approaches for addressing the needs of
today's military-connected families include home visiting models and
better access to mental health services, including cognitive-behavioral
therapy for preschoolers affected by trauma. Additionally, school
personnel and other service providers would benefit from a deeper
understanding of the challenges and strengths associated with military
7/2013, Publication #2013-34
Child Trends 5 is supported by the The Irving B. Harris Foundation.