Since October 2001, the world in which American military children grow up has been changed dramatically by unprecedented levels of deployment tempo and the increased reliance on Reserve and Guard members. To date, a total of over 2.1 million American men and women in uniform have deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Of those Service members, approximately 100,000 — 44 percent — are parents. Of those deployed Service member parents, 48 percent have served at least two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not since the Vietnam War have so many U.S. military families been affected by deployment-related family separation, combat injury, and death. With the U.S. involvement in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq ongoing, there is a deep concern over parental deployment and its impact on the well-being of military children. To better understand the current state of how military children cope with parental deployment, the Department conducted a comprehensive assessment of the impact of military deployment on children based on a review of available studies and survey data from OEF/OIF. Research from previous conflicts and relevant civilian literature were also included in the review.
Key Findings Below are the key findings from available studies based on OEF/OIF data reviewed in this report:
Children’s Coping with Parental Deployment:
• Children’s reactions to deployment-related parental absence vary by age, developmental stage, and other individual and family factors. While young children are likely to exhibit externalizing behavior such as anger and attention difficulties, school-age children demonstrate more internalizing behaviors, such as increased levels of anxiety and fear, sensitivity to media coverage, and reduced school performance. While adolescents often take household responsibilities and become more independent, they were more likely to experience declining academic performance, depressive symptoms, and behavioral problems in response to emotional stress.
• Though the focus of recent studies has shifted to older children’s adjustment to parental deployment, young children (infants and preschoolers) are still most impacted by parental deployment. Most recent studies have indicated that adolescent girls were more likely to encounter more challenges overall than boys.
• The non-deployed parent/caregiver’s psychological health is positively associated with children’s successful coping with deployment-related stress. This finding suggests that programs for the non-deployed spouses may indirectly but powerfully contribute to the well-being of children of the deployed Service members.
• The majority of military children demonstrated a high level of resilience to successfully cope with parental deployments. Despite strong support networks in military and civilian communities, the knowledge and resources to promote resiliency of military families and children are not centrally available.
• The literature on children of war veterans suggested that children of wounded Service members are at risk for emotional and behavioral problems. Longitudinal studies are needed to understand the long-term effects of living with the wounded Service member parents.
• There is no published comprehensive research on the impact of parental death on military children; civilian research on child bereavement has mixed results. Future research is necessary to better understand the trajectory of military children’s bereavement over the span of childhood using a longitudinal study design.
• Though recent studies have found the linkage between parental deployment and the increase in child maltreatment, the generalizability of the findings need to be validated with more representative samples.
Family diversity and the impact of deployment on children:
• Despite their increasing presence in the U.S. military, children of dual-military couples and single family parents have not been the primary subject of assessment or research. More data analyses are necessary to understand the unique needs and challenges that children of these subgroups of military families might experience in face of parental deployment.
• There is no systematic research on how factors affecting child adjustment during deployment (e.g., preexisting psychological conditions, single military parents, children with disabilities) interact with deployment-related stress in the process of child adjustment.
Recommendations A set of recommendations derived from the research and data reviewed in this report are summarized briefly below:
1. Increase the efficacy of research efforts pertaining to the impact of parental deployment on children.
1.1 Coordinate among the Services, Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD), other federal agencies, and partnering universities doing similar research to reduce duplication of research efforts and promote collaboration among researchers.
1.2 Create a communication channel or centralized repository for tracking planned research projects, those in progress, and active research solicitations.
2. Address the diversity in military families and other relevant family factors in research to promote a more complete understanding of how military children cope with deployment-related family separation.
2.1 Assess the needs, concerns, and challenges faced by children of nontraditional military families, including single military parents, dual-military couples, and blended families. The effects of maternal deployment should be also investigated as well.
2.2 Systematic research is required to examine how family factors (e.g., children with preexisting psychological conditions, children with disabilities), which were identified as potential risk factors in child adjustment to parental deployments, affect children’s coping with deployment-related stress.
Family separation due to deployment is a major life event, which could cause a great deal of stress for military children. Though available published research relies heavily on cross-sectional research, there are promising ongoing studies that will allow us to capture the fluid process of child adjustment to parental deployment over time. The recommendations provided in this report represents how future research in this field should be guided to effectively inform us for the development of policies and programs for the support of military families and children.