Focusing on children of Army soldiers 



Sylvia E. J. Kidd
Director, AUSA Family Programs

It is a well known fact that our continuing wars and frequent deployments are difficult for soldiers and their families, however the number of deployments that many families have experienced is unprecedented in our modern Army.

We often talk about what effect all of this is having on our children and their soldier parents but recently there has been much more attention on how our children are actually feeling and how this is impacting them.

Shortly before the New Year began, AUSA Family Programs and other AUSA representatives met with Dr. Leonard Wong and Dr. Stephen Gerras to discuss the results of their research on the effects of multiple deployments on Army children.

Wong, a research professor of military strategy (human and organizational dimensions) served in the Army for over 20 years.

He taught leadership at West Point and served as an analyst in the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army, as well as in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel. He is a professional engineer and holds a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy and an M.S. and Ph.D. in business administration from Texas Tech University.

Gerras is the director of leadership and command instruction in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College.

He has served in the Army for over 24 years, taught leadership at West Point and served in a number of command and leadership positions. He holds a bachelor’s from the U.S. Military Academy and a master’s and doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology from Penn State University.

In March 2009, members of the Army War College had been requested by Forces Command to conduct a study to determine the effects of multiple deployments on Army adolescents.

This study was to provide senior leaders an analysis of the stress on Army adolescents due to multiple deployments, to identify factors which may help to mitigate that stress and also to allow all members of the participating family to share their opinions with Army leaders.

The research consisited of two phases. Phase I consisted of a message from the commanding general and contained a link to an on-line survey in which soldiers, their spouses and children could participate. This was sent to several hundred thousand FORSCOM soldiers with children ages 11 to 17.

About 2,000 soldiers, 750 spouses and 550 children completed Phase I.

Thirty-six percent of the population to complete the survey were deployed soldiers and/or their family members. Twenty-two percent surveyed had been deployed once since Sept. 11, 2009; 39 percent had deployed twice, 27 percent had been deployed three times.

During Phase II which began in June 2009, Wong and Gerras conducted 20- to 30-minute in-person interviews at Fort Bliss, the first of nine installations across the nation to take part in the research.

The study determined six variables or areas which the researchers thought would affect the impact of deployment on adolescents. Those varibles were the number of times a soldiers had been deployed, the strength of the family relationship, whether or not supportive mentors were available, activities in which the family members participated, how well the family communicated and their personal beliefs.

The researchers did not define any of the areas for the participants. This was a correlative study which is a type of study that tests for a relationship between a condition and a potential causal factor of the condition.

After surveying and interviewing the youth, the study found that there was a moderate correlation between how a child perceived the following three variables: the strength of their families, activities in which they were involved and their personal belief and how the child reacted to deployment.

Soldiers and children were both surveyed and interviewed on how they perceived the spouse dealt with a deployment and how that reaction affected the adolescent’s coping abilities.

The soldier was asked: "When I am deployed my spouse handles it well." The majority of the responses were: "Strongly Disagree" and "Disagree."

A child’s stress increased if the spouse at home was not faring well. The more the soldier perceived their spouse dealt well with deployments statement to be true the more the stress level of the child decreased.

During the survey, 220 children with a deployed parent were asked about the frequency of communication which occurred with that parent. The depth of communication between adolescents and deployed parents on the survey answers ranged from "never" to "every day."

The children who responded that they spoke to their deployed parent "everyday" or "several times a week" had a tendency to have more elevated stress levels than those children who spoke to their deployed parent "monthly" or "weekly."

Soldiers and spouses alike felt that the stress and anxiety of their children increased with each deployment however children said that their stress level seemed to decrease after the first deployment to the third deployment. In the small number of adolescents that had experienced more than three deployments stress scale levels increased significantly during deployment number four and five.

Adolescents answered questions on surveys and during interviews concerning the frequency of times they had participated in sports in the past few years. Those that answered "rarely" to "never" had a much higher stress level that those that answered "often" to "very often."

In the personal belief section of the study, adolescents were asked questions regarding mass media and popular opinion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they were asked to comment on: "The American public supports the war," youth that answered "Strongly Disagree," had a much higher stress level than the adolescents who perhaps were neutral to the statement or strongly agreed with it.

Lastly, the study examined the different perspectives of the spouse, soldier and child to the following questions: "In general, how well does your oldest child between 11 and 17 cope with your spouse who has been deployed and away from the home;" "For the child most impacted, how well has your child coped with your spouse’s deployment;" and "Overall, how do you think you handle deployments."

The results of answers by spouses showed they felt 45 percent of the children were handing it "well" or "very well" and 27 percent of children were coping with deployment poorly or very poorly.

Soldiers felt 36 percent of children were coping with deployments "well" or "very well" and 33 percent of children were coping "poorly" or "very poorly."

In contrast, 56 percent of children felt they were coping "well" or "very well" with deployment; and only 17 percent felt they were doing "poorly" to "very poorly." The children’s statistical data concerning how they were coping with deployments was far more optimistic than that of their parents.

However, 17 percent of children, although statisticaly far less than what parents assumed, are still struggling with the absence of a parent due to deployment.

The outcome of the study found that to assist military children in coping and dealing with deployments, parents should make every effort to ensure children feel they have a strong family and foundation; that they stay active or be a part of activities and that they have the personal belief that what their parent is doing is for a greater cause and that America supports the war and in turn supports the parents fighting for that cause.

When a child knew and believed that "Deployed Soldiers are making a difference in the world," they were better able to cope with the absence of their parent and with the deployment cycle.

AUSA Family Programs hosts three Military Family Forums at the Association’s Annual Meeting every October. These seminars feature Army leadership and other speakers who keep family members informed on topics which impact or concern Army families.

The effects of deployments on families and specifically children and adolescents are among topics that have been covered in past Military Family Forums.

Additonal information on the study results will be presented as a part of the the 2010 Military Family Forums series.