Health and Mental Health Needs of Children in US Military Families: Exploring the Effects of Wartime Back »

Written collaboratively by Sheila Snyder, former SDSU Extension Operation: Military Kids State Coordinator, Benjamin S. Siegel, Beth Ellen Davis, and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.


Deployment is a temporary movement of an individual or military unit away from his or her local worksite, resources, and families, and lasting 3-15 months in order to accomplish a particular mission or task. There are deployments that occur when emergencies occur as well, such as Hurricane Katrina, Haiti, and more recently on the East Coast due to hurricane and weather impacting tragedies. These deployments usually mean the travel is within the US to a safe place and are shorter in duration. Most military families do well with this type of deployment and in fact expect it. In contrast, wartime deployments involve dangerous locations, hostile enemies, and long duration. Wartime deployments consist of seven emotional stages. The three primary emotional stages consist are pre-deployment, the actual deployment and equally important, post-deployment.

When assessing the family’s response to the stress of deployment, four factors are considered: the individuals experiences of stress in the past, the meaning they attach to this specific stress of war and deployment, the families context in which the stress is happening and how well the parents cope with the stress and the external resources available to the family to help them deal with the stress.

Studies have reported how important resiliency is and that it seems to play a major part in all phases of deployments. Family Readiness and the acceptance of the military lifestyle were rated extremely important as well as the ability to develop self-reliant coping skills, having been married for more than five years, and higher parental education. Community and social support were valued extremely important as well.

In 1949, the first research on military families was conducted to assess how the family adjusted to the World War II soldiers’ return. After interviews with the families, it was noted that the importance families placed on the meaning of the war and the time of separation predicted positive versus negative adaptation on the Soldiers’ return wartime duties.

In 1979, the term “military family syndrome” was coined, following the review of 792 charts of Army children seen in clinics for behavioral problems. The conclusion was made that military families suffer greater psychosocial difficulties than do families in the general population. However, further studies conducted comparing military and nonmilitary children, did not find any differences. A study of Navy families showed that “sea duty” resulted in the children demonstrating increased responsibility, independence and confidence compared to their peers. Again, the children’s ability to demonstrate resilience was very important.

Not surprisingly, current research confirms that wartime deployment can be very stressful for a child regardless of their developmental stage and that most age groups of children experienced sadness and worry. In fact, 1 in 4 children were found to suffer depressive symptoms and more than one-third of military children experience excessive worry. After a parent survey was conducted, it was found that 1 in 5 school-age children cope poorly and has academic problems during deployment times and that the length of deployment figured considerably, with longer deployment being associated with children having more significant behavioral health problems. The survey also noted that although media coverage of the war was frightening, the ability to communicate through technology brings families much needed comfort.

An additional study of a large based population, reported increased use of mental-behavioral health services in children whose parents were deployed. Children of parents in the non-retired active duty military showed that children 5-17 years of age noted a greater number of mental health diagnoses and more diagnoses correlating with the total time of deployment.

It is an unmistakable conclusion that children of all ages are affected by Wartime Deployments.

Further articles will discuss the effects of war on children of specific ages.

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