National Edition

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.

"I don't know if it was the deployment or her placement in the family, but I did notice she was more into everything and always seemed to be a troublemaker. Some of that is typical for that age. She threw a lot of tantrums at night, but I could say, 'Let's go watch Daddy.' That helped a lot."

So much, in fact, that they talked about it and at the end of each book, Chris Vernon would say "Night, night. Be good for Mommy."

It helped. They didn't have to pine for him. So did the fact that he called and talked to the kids individually. Her mom laughs about the day Hanley took her phone call and disappeared into her bedroom for a half hour. When she handed the phone back, her dad was still there. They'd chatted the whole time.

Changing times

The military family is evolving, along with the effect of deployment on the family's various members. When Vietnam was fought, the report notes, 15 percent of active-duty troops were parents, mostly men and typically officers. Now, nearly half of deployed troops have children and 14 percent are single parents. Sixteen percent of active-duty troops are mothers, which is notably different.

Other things are different, as well.

"Technology has gotten so good over the last few years and the military does such a good job of helping, giving soldiers opportunities to communicate," said Vernon, who paid for an Internet connection while he was deployed. "It wasn't always the greatest, but it gave us lots of opportunities to have face time. The kids were able to see my face and hear my voice; we talked every few days."

He also played typical dad-at-home games, like peek-a-boo or making silly faces.

Suggestions

The report offers recommendations, including creating and maintaining good quality child care. The military has a fine system, Murphey said, but it has lagged behind the demographics of a new military, where as many as two-thirds of reserves and Guard members live off base. That means they may be more isolated from services that have traditionally been provided on base.

The return of military parents ratchets up risk for domestic violence, the report said, adding another potential complication. The Department of Defense Family Advocacy Program gets about 16,000 reports of domestic violence a year.

There's also growing and ongoing need for mental health services for children and parents surrounding deployment, he said. "Some could be provided by encouraging parents to talk to the pediatrician during well-child checks. Is what I am seeing in my child normal or something to be concerned about?"

Children are not only impacted by the deployment, but by reactions from the adults who care for them, too. A mom or dad who is stressed about a spouse's deployment can unknowingly or unintentionally increase the stress level in the young child.

"Young children's well-being typically mirrors the well-being of their caregivers," the report said. "When their parent or other caregiver is depressed, anxious or angry, they are likely to be unwell or to have behavior problems. In some cases, these young children may be at risk for harm (maltreatment)."

Murphey noted that one newer model of getting children mental health services involves collaborations between mental health experts and child care centers. "They can work with the children or the staff or sometimes both to help adults caring for children to understand the special needs of military children."

EMAIL: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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