WASHINGTON, D.C. - Defense Department officials are working aggressively to reduce the impact of multiple deployments on the children of military families.
"The department recognizes that these multiple, long-term deployments are really tough on families," said Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon's Office of Family Policy/Children and Youth.
Deployments since fighting began in Iraq and Afghanistan have affected nearly 2 million military children, and about 234,000 of those children currently have at least one parent deployed, according to a 2007 Defense Manpower Data Center report.
Surveys of active-duty and reserve-component spouses in 2008 included questions regarding military children. The responses of the more than 13,000 active-duty spouses and more than 16,000 reserve-component spouses reinforced the officials' anecdotal knowledge of the effect of deployments, Thompson said.
"It indicated that children were showing fear and anxiety," she said. "Some were having behavioral issues in school, and some were coping well with the deployments." And in testimony before a Senate Armed Services Committee subcommittee, Thompson added, "it was very clear that spouses were concerned about the cumulative effects of deployments on their children."
Sixty percent of active-duty spouses and 67 percent of reserve-component spouses reported an increase in the levels of their children's fear or anxiety in the spouse surveys.
Children of active-duty servicemembers showed a 36 percent decline in academic performance, a number that was matched in increased behavioral issues at school, according to the survey. Children of reserve-component servicemembers saw a 38 percent decline in academic performance, and a 34 percent increase in behavioral issues at school, the surveys revealed.
A deployment can affect children of varying ages differently, Thompson said. Typically, she said, the youngest children, up to 5 years old, may become clingier or regress in some "milestone" areas, such as toilet training. While these children may not be old enough to comprehend the situation, they are reacting to the stress of the parent who is at home, she explained.
School-age children may act out in school or throw tantrums, or their school performance may suffer or they'll lose interest in favorite activities, Thompson said. "Tweens" and teens already may be struggling through their own developmental milestones, she added, and the deployment of a parent can exacerbate the situation.
"Teens can get involved with risky behavior, or the other challenge with teens is that they take on more and more adult responsibility," Thompson said. "That's important, but at the same time, we want them to be kids."
Thompson said it's important for parents to realize that they still need to be involved.
"You still want both the deployed parent as well as the stay-at-home parent to be asking about their [children's] friends," she added. "Where [are they] going? With whom are they hanging out?"
To help parents manage their stress about the deployment, as well as their child's, the Defense Department offers numerous resources, Thompson said.
Through the Military Family Live Consultant program, Defense Department officials have placed behavioral health specialists at family centers on installations. Family members of reserve-component servicemembers can access these resources through "On Demand," a feature of the Joint Family Support Assistance Program, a Military Homefront program.
In addition, Military OneSource offers life coaching and nonmedical counseling face-to-face, via the Web site or over the phone.
But the Defense Department can't do it alone, Thompson emphasized. "We have help from some spectacular partners," she said, highlighting the Sesame Workshop's DVDs designed to help younger children cope with deployments and homecomings.
Other programs -- including Zero to Three, the Military Child Education Coalition, 4-H and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America -- also work to help military children cope with deployment stress, Thompson said.