Military family kids face increased mental health risks
War is always difficult for uniformed service families and their children. Almost 60 percent of U.S. service members have family responsibilities, and as a result, more than 2 million U.S. children have had a parent deployed in the last decade. Now, new research shows that children who have a parent deployed are at an increased risk for social, emotional and behavioral problems.
A new clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Health and Mental Health Needs of Children in U.S. Military Families,” found that a quarter of children of active-duty service members experienced symptoms of depression, a third of children reported excessive worry, and half of children had trouble sleeping.
“In the past 10 years, more than 2 million children in the U.S. have experienced the emotional and stressful event of being separated from a loved one deployed for active duty,” said Beth Ellen Davis, MD, co-author of the report, in a statement. “Most children cope and adapt quite well, but all children experience a heightened sense of fear and worry during a parent’s deployment. It’s important for pediatricians caring for these families to be aware of their family’s situation so they can guide them appropriately.”
According to the report, preschool-age children are likely to experience high levels of emotional reactivity, anxiousness and withdrawal, compared to children with non-military parents. Older children are also at high risk for emotional and behavioral problems. The report also indicates that the risk and severity of mental health issues increases with the length of deployment.
A number of factors can impact the reaction a child has to deployment. According to the research, the service-speciﬁc characteristics of the deployed service member, the stage of deployment, and whether there have been previous deployment experiences are all important factors.
According to the report, pediatricians can play a major role in the deployment process. Pediatricians should be prepared to ask important questions. “How are you doing with this deployment?” may be the single most important family assessment question, says the report. Another important question is, “Has anyone in your family or close community been involved with wartime experiences?” And, as a follow-up, “How are your family members coping with this experience?”
“By understanding the military family and the stressful experiences of parental wartime deployment, all pediatricians, both active duty and civilian, and other health care providers, can be the ‘front line’ in caring for U.S. military children and their families,” said Benjamin S. Siegel, MD, FAAP, co-author of the clinical report, in a statement.
The report also includes numerous suggestions for helping children cope with the stress of deployment. Primarily, parents should be prepared to communicate frequently with their children, and routines from before the deployment should stay as consistent as possible. If a family is struggling with deployment, the report recommends that a pediatrician can help them.
“Pediatricians play a critical role in identifying how well or poorly a child or family responds to a major stressor such as an extended deployment, and can provide the necessary education and support, including referral to a mental health professional when needed,” said Siegel in a statement.
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