Wars Taking Toll on Young Children in U.S. Military Families

JUL 21, 2013

BETHESDA, Md.—The cumulative stress faced by U.S. military families from 12 years of war is posing new risks for the health and well-being of nearly half a million young children with at least one active-duty parent.

A new report issued by Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, research organization, found that children ages birth to six are especially vulnerable when one or both parents are deployed in a war zone and from the effects of those deployments on the physical and mental health of the service members. Young children have higher risks because of their emotional dependence on adults and their brains’ susceptibility to high levels of stress. In addition, many of these children will continue to have exceptional developmental needs as they grow older.

“Young children are particularly sensitive to separations from their primary caregivers and to any other changes that alter their regular routines, since the way children comprehend and react to changes is linked to their development level,” said Child Trends Senior Research Scientist David Murphey and author of the report, Home Front Alert: The Risks Facing Young Children in Military Families.

Nearly one in five service members returning home from deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan report acute stress, depression, or anxiety—including many diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When a parent’s emotional health is compromised, a young child may be more likely to suffer negative emotional impacts such as depression and anxiety. Military parents returning home may also be at risk for domestic violence, which can further traumatize children. Approximately 16,000 reports of spousal abuse are made annually to the Department of Defense Family Advocacy Program.

Child Trends notes the changing composition of U.S. military families from previous war times. In the Vietnam era, only 15 percent of active-duty members were parents, and these were typically officers. Now, nearly half (44 percent) have children, and 14 percent are single parents. In addition, more mothers are serving in the military than in the past and now comprise approximately 16 percent of the activity-duty force. Overall, there are an estimated two million children being raised in military families.

Providing Support for America’s Military-Connected Families

The report highlights a number of ways to address the needs of young children in military-connected families—families that include those still on active duty, serving in the National Guard and Reserves, or military veterans.  These include:

  • Provide at-risk families with regular, preventive “well-child” pediatric visits to assess whether children are developing appropriately;
  • Offer parents facing deployment information on coping with separation;
  • Take a family-systems approach for those military families affected by separation and deployment, working both with families as a unit and with individual family members;
  • Expand mental health services available to military-connected families, including deployment of mental health professionals in early education settings; and
  • Increase access to high-quality child care for military families living on and off military bases. (While the Department of Defense provides well-regarded and high-quality child care, it is not as widely available to the estimated two-thirds of military personnel living off base.)

“Young children in our military families face increased risks to their social, emotional and physical development,” said Carol Emig, president of Child Trends.  “If we can successfully address these risks, we will improve outcomes for these children, learn lessons that can be applied to other families encountering similar difficulties, and strengthen our military”

The Child Trends report, Home Front Alert: The Risks Facing Young Children in Military Families, is available online at https://www.childtrends.org/?publications=home-front-alert-the-risks-facing-young-children-in-military-families-2.

NOTE:  This release was modified on July 25, 2013 to correct the percentage of service members with children from 47% to 44% percent. We regret the error.

Child Trends, based in Bethesda, Md., is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that provides valuable information and insights on the well‐being of children and youth. For more than 30 years, policymakers, funders, educators and service providers in the U.S. and around the world have relied on our data and analyses to improve policies and programs serving children and youth. Our work is supported by foundations; federal, state and local government agencies; and by nonprofit organizations.