Further study needed on well-being of military children 



Sylvia E.J. Kidd
Director, AUSA Family Programs

When two social scientists testified before the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee on the effects of deployments on children in military families, panel members wanted further studies made to understand the effects on the children of guardsmen and reservists, impact on children from dual military families or single parent families and to better understand how programs for military children are actually meeting their needs.

Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corp., said one of the key findings was the number of months deployed versus the number of deployments had a direct impact on children and caregivers.

The study focused on the well-being of youth, ages 11 to 17, and their non-deployed parent or caregiver from over 1,500 families.

The Department of Defense estimates that there are between 1.8 and 2 million children of military families who have had a parent deployed.

The findings showed, she said: "Thirty percent of our sample had elevated levels of anxiety symptoms, indicating a possible anxiety disorder. This is twice as high as the proportion of other samples of youth. We did not observe any major differences in child well-being, by component, deployment experience, or service."

Adding, "Caregivers reported that older children had a greater number of difficulties than younger children during deployment. Girls reported more challenges during deployment and reintegration than did boys. We also found that caregivers with poor mental health themselves reported more child difficulties during deployment."

The RAND survey included guardsmen and reservists, and found no significant difference between the components. It also found no significant difference between the experiences of children whose father deployed or whose mother deployed.

Leonard Wong, of the Army War College who was featured in the March issue of AUSA NEWS, said his study of the same age group found that while deployed soldiers believed their children had increased levels of stress with each deployment the children said that was not the case. In short, they had learned to cope.

The best ways children used to handle deployment stress came through sports, on or off post, coming from a strong family and believing that the American public supports what their parent is doing.

In answer to a question, Wong said, "Our study looked at activities, specifically sports. We looked at clubs, such as band or drama. We looked at organizations such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts. And we looked at religious activities.

"And what we found is that the significant factor for predicting which children will be better with the deployment of stress are those who are participating in activities such as sports."

In describing the environment that these adolescents grow as one "with lofty notions such as sacrifice, selfless service, and duty. They’re surrounded by sayings such as I know my soldiers and I will always put their needs ahead of my own from the NCO creed. These children understand that the Army’s a greedy institution, demanding all the time, energy, and focus of a soldier."

Wong added, "But they also understand from first-hand experience that the family is a greedy institution that requires constant attention and care. And so they see the deployed soldier caught in the middle of both noble institutions."

While the RAND study did not ask caregivers what services they used for support during deployments, Wong’s did. "What we discovered was is that a key factor in the spouse’s dealing with deployments is the family readiness group."

Chandra said that both studies showed a need to look at the needs of older children and teenagers, "so that we can look at the programs that we currently have and try and figure out are we aligning our programs with those needs, particularly of adolescents, and particularly those older adolescents."

Whether increased communication between the deployed service member and families back home was helpful became open to question. Wong said, "One of our hypothesis was that the more frequent communication with the deployed soldier and the more in-depth communication with the soldier, two variables, we figured the lower the stress would be.

"What we found was that the more frequent the communication, the higher the stress. Now we have to be careful about causality here because it could be – a knee-jerk reaction might be, the more they talk, the more they get stressed. Or it could be the more stressed a child is, the more they want to talk with the deployed soldier."

Boys and girls reacted differently to the return of a deployed parent. Chandra said, "Girls expressed more worry about how their parents were getting along at home."

Adding, "They expressed more worry if that deployed parent that returned had a mood change or was different in some way. They just had greater anxiety about some of those issues."