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When Parent Is Deployed, Kids Struggle

The longer the absence, the worse children fare, study finds

MONDAY, Dec. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Children whose parents are deployed appear to have more emotional difficulties, stress, anxiety and problems within the family than their peers, a new study shows.

Researchers interviewed more than 1,500 military family members, including kids aged 11 to 17, nearly all of whom had a parent who was deployed or had been deployed once or more to Iraq or Afghanistan. They also surveyed the parent, usually the mother, who stayed home.

Among children 11 to 14 years old, about 34 percent of those from military families had moderate to high scores on a test of emotional difficulties, compared with about 19 percent of children in a national sample of their peers.

Among younger kids, those 7 to 11 years old, about 30 percent of the military kids reported elevated anxiety symptoms, compared with 9 percent to 15 percent of non-military children from an earlier nationally representative study.

"What we found was that kids were reporting taking on more household responsibilities, such as taking care of siblings, and feeling like they were missing school activities," said study author Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Va. "At the same time, they may be worrying about the parent at home and overseas and trying to manage their life of being a kid."

Though the study found that the number of deployments did not affect a child's emotional health, the total number of months away did. Many military personnel have been deployed four, five and even six times during the current wars, for lengths ranging from a few months to more than a year. In the study, the average number of months a parent had been deployed in the past three years was 11.

There was no difference in how children fared based on the branch of the military in which their parent served, according to the study, which was published online Dec. 7 in the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers also found that the children of parents who reported struggling with their own emotional or mental health issues also fared worse.

"If the non-deployed parent was reporting more challenges, the kid was reporting more challenges," Chandra said.

Girls in particular reported more difficulties adjusting to the deployed parent's return home. Boys had more behavioral issues than girls, whereas older children tended to struggle more than younger children.

However, in many ways the children were resilient, Chandra said. Their levels of academic engagement, such as completing homework and maintaining their grades, and social functioning were comparable to non-military kids.

Kristin Henderson, the wife of a Navy chaplain who is serving in Afghanistan and the author of "While They're At War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront," said that the findings fit with what she's been hearing from families and teachers.

"Teachers at schools on military bases say they could often tell who had a deployed parent by the child's behavior, and they could always tell who had a caregiver who was struggling at home," Henderson said. "Adults are good at hiding it if they have a problem at home. Kids are not."

But the study may not fully reflect the extent of the struggles, Henderson said. The average age of women surveyed was 38, older by military standards. Many were the spouses of mid-level and senior enlisted personnel. That would mean that study participants would tend to have more financial resources and life experience to help them through.

"Part of what makes deployment so challenging is that the military life is a mobile one," Henderson said. "Younger families tend to not know what resources are out there for them, and they typically don't have family to fall back on because they're in a new town. Older families learn that it's important to connect, to get to know their neighbors and others in the unit because they might need them."

Renters fared worse than those living on base, suggesting that isolation might be an issue, Henderson said. On base, families are surrounded by neighbors who know what they are going through and teachers tuned in to potential issues.

"Kids crave stability and routine," she said. "As soon as that partner is deployed, the routine gets turned upside town. Family responsibilities and roles can change. And kids can really struggle with that."

"While many families do just fine, if you see a parent struggling, chances are the kid is struggling, too," Henderson said. "The real solution is to get the parent on track."

More information

The U.S. Department of Defense has information for military families.

SOURCES: Anita Chandra, Dr.P.H., behavioral scientist, Rand Corp., Arlington, Va.; Kristin Henderson, author, Washington, D.C.; Dec. 7, 2009, Pediatrics, online

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