By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
March 10, 2010 - Children with a strong nondeployed parent or caregiver and a solid support system have a better ability to cope with deployments, two recent studies have shown. Anita Chandra, a behavioral scientist from Rand Corp., and Leonard Wong, a research professor from the Army War College, highlighted the findings of these studies during testimony to the House Armed Services Committee yesterday. Both studies focused on military children ages 11 to 17.
"We had a very strong relationship between the caregiver's mental health and their ability to cope as well as the ability for their children to handle some of the deployment stressors," said Chandra, describing the findings of the study "Children on the Homefront: The Experiences of Children From Military Families."
This independent study included more than 1,500 military families, focusing on the well-being of youth ages 11 to 17 and their nondeployed parent or caregiver.
The study's goal was to show how children from military families function with respect to academics, peer and family relations, general emotional difficulties and overall problem behaviors, Chandra explained. The study found that, when compared to a sample of U.S. children, military children have a higher average rate of emotional difficulties at each age, she said.
Older children and girls, particularly, had a greater number of difficulties during deployment, she noted. And the total months the parent was deployed, rather than the number of deployments, was related to a greater number of challenges as well, she added.
Relating to family strength, "we found that caregivers with poorer mental health themselves reported more child difficulties during deployment," Chandra said.
Chandra suggested that families may benefit from targeted support to deal with stressors at later points in the deployment, and not simply during initial stages. And, "families in which nondeployed caregivers are struggling with their own mental health may need more support for both caregiver and child," she said.
Wong also found a strong connection between family strength and children's ability to cope with deployment in the Army study, "The Effects of Multiple Deployments on Army Adolescents."
For the study, an anonymous, Web-based survey was issued to a random sample of more than 2,000 active-duty soldiers, as well as to more than 700 Army spouses and about 550 military children between ages 11 and 17. The study focused on what factors might influence the magnitude of stress related to deployments, he said.
Wong found that the No. 1 factor in mitigating deployment stress was a child's participation in activities, such as sports, followed by a strong family foundation. Activities serve "as a distraction to the negative feelings associated with a deployment," he explained.
Another, unexpected predictor of deployment stress was a child's belief that the American public supports the war, he said.
"Sports as a diversion for deployment stress, that makes sense and youth sports programs are relatively easy to create," he said. "But that the strength of a child's perception of the American support for the war would be associated with their deployment stress was a surprise, and it's a much more complex issue to deal with."
In addition to looking at what factors influence the magnitude of stress, the study also examined how well adolescents coped with deployments overall. Along with the previous factors such as strong families, activities and a child's belief that America supports the war, the largest predictor of stress was a child's belief that the soldier is making a difference in the world.
This finding is surprising, yet intuitive, Wong noted. "These children understand that the Army is a 'greedy' institution demanding all of time, energy and focus of a soldier," he said. "They also understand from personal experience that the family is a greedy institution that requires constant attention and care.
"They see deployed soldiers caught in the middle of both noble institutions," he added.
Looking ahead, Wong noted the importance of building strong families and focusing on activities such as sports to help mitigate stress. A child's belief system, however, may be a more complicated factor to tackle, he said. "The factors of the children's beliefs, what they feel about the Army, what they feel about the nation, make a difference," Wong said. "And so how do you influence a child's beliefs? That's a critical question and that will have us thinking for a long time."
While the studies are useful, more work remains to be done on behalf of military children, Chandra said.
"Both of our studies really point to the needs of older youth," she said. "What we hope from this work is that it starts to identify some of the needs of older youth and teenagers so we that can look at the programs we currently have and try and figure out if we are aligning our programs with those needs, particularly with adolescents, and particularly those older adolescents.
"Despite the contributions of previous studies, significant knowledge gaps remain, especially for older children," she added.