WASHINGTON - Children in military families experience emotional and behavioral difficulties above national averages, a study has revealed.
The Rand Corp. study, commissioned by the National Military Family Association, explored how older children from military families deal with the deployment of a parent. The results were published in the journal Pediatrics on Dec. 7.
The study surveyed 1,500 military children, ages 11 to 17, from across the nation and their nondeployed parent or caregiver.
"This is one of the first studies that I'm aware of where the children were the ones providing the information," said Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon's office of family policy and children and youth. "It's groundbreaking."
About one-third of the children in the study reported symptoms of anxiety, somewhat higher than the percentages reported on other studies of children, the results indicated. Also, the number of child difficulties was linked to the total months deployed in the past three years.
"The study serves as an important reminder that when a servicemember deploys, the entire family deploys," Thompson said. "The findings contributed to our understanding of how longer and repeated deployments weigh on families."
Findings also suggested that children whose caregivers had better self-reported mental health were better able to cope with deployments.
"We are definitely aware that the resiliency and coping mechanisms of the stay-behind parent will make a deployment that much easier for the child," Thompson said. She cited Defense Department programs such as Military OneSource, which provides around-the-clock access to military family life consultants.
"The key is to talk about challenges and work together to find solutions," she said, "so you can be a strong parent for your children."
The study also served to highlight populations that may be more vulnerable to deployment-related stress. The study indicated that "families living off-base, girls during the reintegration period, and middle and late adolescents were especially vulnerable," Thompson noted.
"We know that two-thirds of our military families live off the installation," she said. "We know how tough it is to access brick and mortar with a deployed family member, as you're juggling work schedules [and] children's activities."
Thompson said she hopes the department's virtual programs can help fill the gap. "Virtual technology offers a great support for families off installation and for those families who are geographically separated, such as our Guard and Reserve [servicemembers], who often don't have easy access to the programs and services designed to support them," she said.
The study is useful in that it provides scientific data that can help to identify vulnerable populations and to steer the department's future decisions on military family programs, Thompson said.
"We now have some very important data that will drive decisions and that we can use to create a dialogue," she added. "We know military families also serve, and the National Military Family Association knows that as well. We greatly appreciate their efforts with this study."
While the study was beneficial, Thompson noted, it included few lower-ranking enlisted families and only dealt with a limited age group. However, the department will launch a comprehensive survey of military families this spring called the "DoD Military Family Project," she said. This survey of active-duty members and their spouses will include a representative sample of the active duty force, spanning all ranks and ages of children.
"This is going to be a landmark study," Thompson said. "It will track families over time, after going through a deployment cycle, so we can see the changes and challenges. That information will be very critical as we look at how we provide support and information to people."
In the meantime, Thompson said, she welcomes studies on military families such as the Rand study.
"The more we know about the impact of multiple, long-term deployments on families, the better we will be able to serve them," she said. "This is an unprecedented time, not only for our military children, but for other nations'. This type of knowledge is contributing to the universe of knowledge about the impact of separation on children.
"Those of us who work with families know separation affects children, and affects them differently in different stages," she continued. "Our focus is, how do we keep a child in the mind of a deployed parent and the parent in the mind of a child at home? How do we keep connections vibrant and ongoing? That is our mission."