Children and Spouses of Deployed Military Members Report Challenges as Responsibilities Increase

For Release

January 19, 2011

Children and spouses of military members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan report facing challenges as family relationships change and they assume more responsibility for household duties during deployment, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

In a one-year study of how deployment affects children, researchers found that a greater percentage of children from a sample of military families suffered from emotional difficulty and anxiety symptoms compared to other children their age. Youth in the study also reported challenges with increased household chores, feeling misunderstood by community members, and dealing with the deployed parent's mood changes once they return home.

Military spouses in the study cited growing household workloads, changing marital roles, and family communication challenges as among the major stressors when a military spouse is deployed overseas. Caregivers whose spouses belonged to the National Guard or Reserves reported poorer emotional well-being and greater household challenges than those whose spouses serve in the full-time military.

Good family communication was key to limiting perceived problems during deployment. Researchers found that good-quality family communication—defined as a perception of empathy and understanding between parent and child—was associated with fewer reported household challenges among those studied.

"These findings underscore the experiences of children and spouses when a member of the military goes off to war," said Anita Chandra, the study's lead author and a behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "While children and spouses are continuing to handle challenges well overall, it is how children and spouses handle the change in household and family relationships that affects how they cope during periods of deployment."

The study, sponsored by the National Military Family Association, is the first to follow a sample of families from all military services over time to assess the impact of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan on military spouses and children.

Researchers followed 1,127 military families over a 12-month period beginning in the summer of 2008 to assess how well they were coping with deployment. The study assessed one child and caregiver (a nondeployed parent or guardian) from each family, asking them about emotional and behavioral issues three times over the study period.

Self-reported parenting issues were greater for caregivers of boys and those experiencing a deployment at the time of the study. Caregivers who reported poorer emotional well-being also said that their children had greater emotional, social and academic difficulties.

Researchers say trends identified during the early phase of the study were confirmed during the one-year follow-up period. Families with more total months of parental deployment continued to report more emotional difficulties among children, as well as more problems during deployment and during reintegration after the deployed parent returns home.

In the one-year analysis, nearly one third of caregivers reported that their children experienced moderate to high levels of emotional and behavior problems, compared with 19 percent of all youth nationally. Questions answered by youth showed that about 30 percent continued to report elevated levels of anxiety symptoms that indicate the need for further evaluation. This compares to 15 percent in other studies of youth.

The research suggests that support be targeted to families facing more months of deployment and that more systematic screening be considered to assess emotional problems within families. It also suggests that more resources may be needed to support caregivers, particularly for spouses of National Guard and Reserve members who may not live near military bases where help is more readily available.

The study recommends that existing programs be evaluated in light of new research that highlights the problems of military families. While many support programs have been introduced over the past 10 years, efforts should make sure the implemented programs are effective and more generally, that support resources are focused on the best ways to help families with attention to family communication and the needs of spouses.

The RAND researchers say there is a need to follow military children for a longer period of time to examine whether the effects associated with deployments are long lasting. RAND will soon begin a new federally funded study—the Deployment Life Study—to examine how deployment affects the health and well-being of military families over the course of three years.

In the latest study, RAND researchers surveyed families that applied in 2008 for "Operation Purple," a free camp for military children sponsored by the National Military Family Association and held at 63 sites across the nation. The mission of the Operation Purple program is to help children cope with the stresses of war. More than 12,000 children applied for the camps. More than 4,000 families were invited to participate in the RAND study.

The study, "Views from the Homefront: The Experiences of Youth and Spouses from Military Families," can be found at Other authors of the study are Lisa H. Jaycox, Terri Tanielian, Bing Han, Rachel M. Burns, and Teague Ruder of RAND, and Sandraluz Lara-Cinisomo of RAND and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The study was done within the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research and the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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