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Child Trends report explores war deployment's impact on youngest children

Published: Saturday, July 27 2013 11:50 a.m. MDT

More than a half-million children under age 6 are directly impacted by war as a parent leaves to serve in the military. The impact on young children can pose risks and challenges and point out a need for services.

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BOUNTIFUL — For nearly a year, Capt. Chris Vernon read a bedtime story to his four young children each night. His wife, Melanie, held the same book and cuddled them as they watched a recording of him made in Afghanistan, where he served with the National Guard's 624th Engineer Company and took advantage of the United Through Reading Program every chance he got.

Over the course of his deployment, he recorded dozens of books for kids. Melanie received the books and DVD recordings for bedtime. He also called and talked to the kids regularly, unwilling to give up his place in their daily lives though duty called.

When he got back, baby Paislee, then 2, looked at him oddly for a minute, unaccustomed perhaps to how three-dimensional and touchable he was. Then she joined her older siblings in hugging and welcoming him home.

That's not always the case. More than a half-million children under age 6 have been directly impacted as mom or dad were deployed to fight in recent conflicts. A new report by Child Trends, issued Monday, said the impact on young children varies, but can include risks and challenges, highlighting the need for services.

"When a parent deploys, the whole family is affected," said David Murphey, Child Trends senior research scientist and author of "Home Front Alert: The Risks Facing Young Children in Military Families." "Young children are particularly vulnerable because their developing brains are vulnerable to stress and, at a time when important attachments are forming, they can be disrupted."

Unspoken issues

Child Trends president Carol Emig said as many as one in five deployed soldiers have come home from Afghanistan or Iraq with some type of mental health challenge, including stress, anxiety or depression. Many have post traumatic stress disorder and still others come home with traumatic brain injuries. Children must deal with all of that — the absences and loss and the changes posed by parents as they leave and return from war. Even young children can become depressed, anxious or aggressive, she said.

The littlest of the left-behinds were the subject of the report because they may not understand what's happening or be able to verbalize their feelings, but that doesn't keep them from reacting with negative behaviors, moods and in other ways, Murphey said. In some cases, the challenges are more severe with very young kids. Severe trauma or stress can change the architecture of the brain.

Physical, emotional, cognitive and social development are interrelated in young children, the report said.

The impact may show up much later, in adolescence or even adulthood. Murphey said there's no evidence that gender of the deployed parent or whether a family has two parents makes a difference in the effect the deployment has. "Children form important attachment relationships with both, if they have both parents around. Whether mom or dad or both are deployed, children experience that separation as a loss and will identify."

What happens varies, but negative emotions are similar within age groups. When a loved one leaves, infants tend to become irritable or listless. Some stop eating. Toddlers 2 and 3 become clingy or withdrawn, may have tantrums or sleep disturbances. The older group, the preschoolers, may become clingy or fearful.

The Vernons

"I think we did a good job of coming right back into it and everybody seemed to adjust," said Chris Vernon. "We were proactive. We used technology and put forth a concerted effort to bond and connect in any way we could."

Even so, said Melanie Vernon, their second-youngest, Hanley, had tantrums and sleep issues for a while after her dad deployed.

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