WASHINGTON — The cumulative number of months parents spend deployed is tied to emotional difficulties in Army children, experts said at the Association of the United States Army’s Family Forum I on Oct. 3.
The finding came from a five-year longitudinal study sponsored by the RAND Corporation, the Office of the Army Surgeon General and the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
The rolling study followed some 2,700 military families from all branches, serving in both the active and reserve components, across three-year-deployment cycles between 2011 and 2015. During the study, researchers collected data from service members, spouses, and children over the age of 11.
The study looked into three main questions, according to Terri Tanielian, a senior social research analyst at Rand:
1) Do outcomes of military families change or remain stable across the deployment cycle?
2) How is deployment related to military family outcomes?
3) What accounts for variability in families’ post-deployment outcomes?
“We all know that kids over time change and mature and developmentally go through different phases,” Tanielian said. “So while we could track that, we also wanted to understand what additional impact deployment had on their outcomes and then identify factors that could be used as the basis of potential intervention opportunities.”
The study examined 40 different outcomes for children and teens across social, emotional, behavioral and academic areas and compared children whose parents deployed to children whose parents did not. Researchers examined how children adjusted during a deployment, whether they had trouble in school and whether they had access to social support and peers who understood them.
“Particularly we looked at their socialization with other military kids to determine whether or not that was adding risk or protection to some of their outcomes,” Tanielian said.
According to Tanielian, most of the challenges the children in the study faced could be attributed to normal maturation, with several important exceptions. For example, parents with children under 11 reported an increased need for behavioral health services as well as emotional difficulties, over and above their non-deployed peers.
And while the rates for teenagers were comparable in those areas, teens with deployed parents seemed to have more difficult relationships with both parents than teenagers whose parents did not deploy. Those challenges seemed to continue even after reintegration, and teens often told their parents they were fine, when, in fact, they weren’t.
“The longer the parent was deployed, the greater difficulty the teen faced,” Tanielian said. “As the cumulative months of parent deployment accumulated, you see a worsening set of outcomes for their teens and children.”
She stressed that the total number of deployments mattered far less than the total number of months. The findings correlated with those of a previous study, which found that standardized test scores among military kids declined the longer the parents were away on deployment.
“This really suggests the need for targeting those children whose parent have been deployed for 18 months or longer,” she said.
The Army may also want to reach out to the children of soldiers who are exposed to combat trauma. Those children and teens, she said, experienced noticeably worse outcomes.
“If we know that their parent has been exposed to combat-related trauma, which is an item that they fill out on the post-deployment health assessment, it provides an opportunity to actually intervene early,” Tanielian said. “It gives us an opportunity to target and tailor those interventions to those particular types of kids and families.”
Such early intervention and access to behavioral health care are cornerstones of Army medicine, said Lt. Col. Chris Iveny, a psychiatrist and the director of psychological health and chief of the Behavioral Health Division at the Office of the Surgeon General.
According to Iveny, two initiatives are already making a difference for the one in five Army children who need mental health care at some point. (That figure is comparable to the civilian population.)
One is tele-behavioral health, which helps ease a critical national shortage in child behavioral health specialists, especially at some of the Army’s remote and overseas garrisons. The other is the school behavioral health program, which embeds providers in schools on 14 installations (soon to be 18).
Iveny said that children who attend schools with the behavioral health program have much easier access to care and can even devote several visits to the same issue.
“It’s also easier for the behavioral health provider to work with the teachers, school administrators ... and things like that,” he said, “to make sure that all of the resources that are available, and all of the people who are working for our Army kids, are working together for the same goal.”
According to Tanielian, the study also showed that children and teens who kept in good contact with their parents during deployment tended to do better. Military children who spent a lot of time with each other also tended to do better.
That’s often where child and youth services comes in, said Cherri Verschraegen, director of child, youth and school services at headquarters, Installation Management Command. She explained that school-age fitness initiatives, cooking classes, opportunities to try new skills, homework assistance and STEM projects are designed to bolster resilience and connections.
“The culmination of our efforts for resiliency education come together in the middle school and teen programs, where we offer youth training through the Master Resiliency Program,” she said.
The program, she said, is built on the adult resiliency curriculum.
“We sent our staff to the training — it’s about two weeks — and then they distilled a number of 45-minute classes or lessons ... and made it appropriate for kids,” she said. “We’re offering it in 18 pilot garrisons. One of our initiatives is to expand that.”
Parents who are looking for care, whether its full-time infant care at a child development center or after-school programs for a grade-schooler, are encouraged to visit Militarychildcare.com, where they can research options and request care.