Academic journal article The Future of Children

How Wartime Military Service Affects Children and Families

Academic journal article The Future of Children

How Wartime Military Service Affects Children and Families

Article excerpt


How are children's lives altered when a parent goes off to war? What aspects of combat deployment are most likely to put children at risk for psychological and other problems, and what resources for resilience can they tap to overcome such hardships and thrive?

To answer these questions, Patricia Lester and Lieutenant Colonel Eric Flake first examine the deployment cycle, a multistage process that begins with a period of anxious preparation after a family receives notice that a parent will be sent into combat. Perhaps surprisingly, for many families, they write, the most stressful part of the deployment cycle is not the long months of separation that follow but the postdeployment period, when service members, having come home from war, must be reintegrated into families whose internal rhythms have changed and where children have taken on new roles. Lester and Flake then walk us through a range of theoretical perspectives that help us understand the interconnected environments in which military children live their lives, from the dynamics of the family system itself to the external contexts of the communities where they live and the military culture that helps form their identity.

The authors conclude that policy makers can help military-connected children and their families cope with deployment by, among other things, strengthening community support services and adopting public health education measures that are designed to reduce the stigma of seeking treatment for psychological distress. They warn, however, that much recent research on military children's response to deployment is flawed in various ways, and they call for better-designed, longer-term studies as well as more rigorous evaluation of existing and future support programs.


As the longest war in United States history, the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has placed extraordinary demands on children living in military families. Long separation from a parent is difficult for children of any age, but separation combined with the heightened danger of wartime military service is unique to military children.

As a matter of course, military children and their families negotiate the many transitions in military life that are familiar and expected--frequent moves, job reassignments, changing friends and communities, and new schools in different states and even different countries. These transitions may be rewarding, with opportunities for growth and adventure. But they may also be disruptive, with changes in routines and support networks for children and adults alike.

Over the past decade, however, U.S. military children and their families have also had to manage the cumulative stress of separation from a loved one in the context of danger. Children have said goodbye with the pervasive worry that their mother or father might return injured, or might not return at all. Multiple deployments mean that military children may experience this type of separation many times, from infancy to adolescence. Even if they themselves aren't directly affected, most military children know another child who has lost a loved one or seen a parent or sibling return injured from war. These children often know how hard it is to reconnect with a parent who suffers from traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress, or a serious physical disability. Deployment and its dangers can threaten children's sense of security in their primary caregiving relationship, a disruption that may not readily resolve even after the parent returns home. Perhaps more than any other unique characteristic of military life, deployment--and the way it shapes children's expectations of their caregiving relationships and their family's sense of safety--is central to understanding how parents' wartime service affects military-connected children.

In this article, we examine what we know and what we still need to know about how children react to military life and their parents' wartime service. …

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