When a Parent Goes to War

Staying connectedThe nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with an all-volunteer military, has led to multiple and extended deployments for active-duty, reserve, and National Guard troops. One of the invisible effects of war is the impact of prolonged deployments on the well-being of children in military families. Until now, there has not been a comprehensive study of sufficient size to fully examine the effects of parental deployment on older children.

The first results from a large, longitudinal study finds that children from military families experience significant emotional and behavioral problems when a parent is deployed overseas. (The full text of the Pediatrics article is available here for free.) The Rand Corporation study includes families from all branches of the military. Fifteen-hundred children ages 11 to 17 and their non-deployed parents are to be surveyed three times over the course of one year. Nearly all the children (95%) had experienced at least one parental deployment over the past three years and nearly 40% percent had a parent deployed at the time of the interview.

All the families were recruited from those who applied for the National Military Family Association's Operation Purple camp--a free program held for children of military service members at 63 sites across the country. The mission of the Operation Purple Camp is to help children cope with the stress of war and a parent's deployment.

Some findings from the study:
  • Compared to children in the civilian population, the military children reported higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems.
  • Older teens, and girls of all ages, reported significantly more problems at home, school, and with peers.
  • The longer a parent was deployed, the greater the problems experienced by a child.
  • The children of non-deployed caretakers with mental health problems had greater difficulties.
  • Children who did not live on a military base while their parent was gone also experienced more problems.
  • No significant differences were found between the service branches or between active-duty (63%)and Reserve/Guard families (37%).
Some limitations of the study:
  • The study may not be representative of all military families because it included only those who applied to the Operation Purple Camp program.
  • Marine families were under-represented.
  • There were few families that had deployed mothers and caretaker fathers.
  • There were fewer families from the lower enlisted ranks.
It's not hard to imagine that children of deployed parents have problems adjusting to their parents' absence. Anxiety over the deployed parent's safety, more responsibilities at home, increased stress on the non-deployed parent, and the loss of daily support by the absent parent can all affect a child's adjustment.

New stressors may emerge when the deployed parent returns home. Family role changes during the parent's absence need to be renegotiated. Families are affected when a service member suffers from head trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or depression as a result of their combat experiences. Marital problems, domestic violence, and child abuse becomes more common. The return may be temporary with little time as a family before the parent starts preparing for re-deployment.

When military parents are involved in a war or conflict long-term, so too are their families. The accumulated stress of multiple deployments takes its' toll on children's resiliency. Fortunately, the growing recognition of the effects of war on military children has led to more resources to address their needs. Here are a few:

Deployment - from the National Military Family Association

Helping Kids Deal with Deployment - from afterdeployment

Operation Healthy Reunions - from Mental Health America

Returning from the War Zone: A Guide for Families of Military Personnel - from the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Chandra, A., Lara-Cinisomo, S., Jaycox, L., Tanielian, T., Burns, R., Ruder, T., & Han, B. (2009). Children on the Homefront: The Experience of Children From Military Families PEDIATRICS, 125 (1), 16-25 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-1180


  1. As the mother of an Army Sgt. who has deployed twice to Iraq and the grandmother of his two children, I know that deployment takes a toll. The other thing though, is that the way deployment is explained to children and how the adults in thier life cope with that stress makes a huge difference. Here is a resource that may be helpful to parents and young children in this situation:
    www.weservetoo.com These books are designed to encourage talk between the child and caretaker. They gently open many avenues of conversation. Each book has a dogtag which gives the child a tangible item to connect with the deployed parent. There is a book for deployment (We Serve Too!) and one for reunion ( We Serve Too2), which you have accurately stated is not always easy either!The website gives free parent guides to help answer kids questions. Hope this helps!

  2. Thank-you for the resource. Your books look like ones that young children would like. The parent guides seem especially valuable. I see from your website that you grew up in the military. I did too. Personal experience does make it easier to see things from a child's point of view! Keep up the good work.

  3. How do you cite this article in an annotation? preferably MLA format

  4. Here's good reference - see the bottom of the page:



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