Caring for Kids

Girl on left and boy on right laughing

Military children have been under continuous stress and strains from the frequent and long deployments during our Nation’s support of the Global War on Terror. The result has been an increase in the number of outpatient care and hospitalizations for mental health care service. In 2008, there were 2 million visits, which is twice the number prior to the start of the Iraq war. Overall, the number of children and spouses of active duty service members, National Guard, and Reserve members seeking mental health care has been increasing steadily.

The National Military Family Association is concerned about the impact deployment is having on our most vulnerable population—military kids. We commissioned the RAND Corporation to follow military children for 12 months, summer 2008 through summer 2009, surveying them and their parent or caregiver on three occasions to answer two key questions: how are school-age military children faring and what types of issues do military children face related to deployment? Read the key findings of our preliminary study, Children on the Homefront: The Experience of Children From Military Families, or access the full article. We have found there is a direct correlation between the mental health of the caregiver and the well-being of the child. As the months of parental deployment increased so did the child’s challenges. The total number of months away mattered more than the number of deployments. Teens especially carry a burden of care that they are reluctant to share with the non-deployed parent in order to not "rock the boat." They are often encumbered by the feeling of trying to keep the family going, along with anger over changes in their schedules, increased responsibility, and fear for their deployed parent.

Children of the National Guard and Reserve members face unique challenges since there are no military installations for them to utilize. Our study, Children on the Homefront: The Experience of Children From Military Families, found that Guard and Reserve caregivers reported fewer supports for their families and worse mental health than those in the active component. They find themselves "suddenly military" without resources to support them. School systems are generally unaware of this change in focus within these families and are ill prepared to watch for potential problems caused by these deployments or if an injury occurs to a parent. Also vulnerable are children who have disabilities that are further complicated by deployment and subsequent injury of the service members. Their families may find stress to be overwhelming, but are afraid to reach out for assistance for fear of retribution to the service member's career.

The impact of the wounded, ill, and injured on children is often overlooked and underestimated. Military children experience a metaphorical death of the parent they once knew and must make many adjustments as their parent recovers. Many families relocate to be near the treating Military Treatment Facility (MTF) or the Department of Veterans Affairs' Polytrauma Center in order to make the rehabilitation process more successful. As the spouse focuses on the rehabilitation and recovery, older children take on new roles. They may become the caregivers for other siblings, as well as for the wounded parent. Many spouses send their children to stay with neighbors or extended family members, as they tend to their wounded, ill, and injured spouse. Children can get shuffled from place to place until they can be reunited with their parents. Once reunited, they must adapt to the parent's new injury and living with the "new normal." 

There are a variety of programs available for military parents and their children. The National Military Family Association recognizes the need for more resources to support military children and do so through our free Operation Purple® camps. Our Association contracted the RAND Corporation to conduct a pilot study to identify the cumulative effects multiple deployments have on military children. This year, we conducted a follow up study to examine the relationship between deployment and its effect on the mental health of military family members and wellbeing of children. We have also created an informational tool—"10 Thing Military Teens Want You To Know" toolkits— for adults who work with military teens.

Many organizations provide support programs, such as Sesame Workshop, Zero to Three, the Military Child Education Coalition, and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Military OneSource offers a variety of program links. Go to: www.militaryonesource.mil for more information. There are parent guide books on deployment and reunions with children and support for adolescents available on their websites.

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