Military Kids Feel the Effects of Parental Separation

Children whose parents are serving active duty experience more outpatient visits for mental and behavioral health complaints, says a new study.

Parental military deployment is associated with an 11% increase in childhood outpatient visits for mental and behavioral health issues, according to findings from a large-scale study published in Pediatrics.

While mental health experts have previously acknowledged that military deployment of a parent influences children’s behavior in a variety of settings, the clinical significance of these deployment-associated behavior changes had not been determined.

In a retrospective study of more than 640,000 children, researchers from Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD, set out to determine the effect of parental military deployment on the relative rate of outpatient visits for mental and behavioral health disorders in children aged 3 to 8 years by linking the records of children of active-duty personnel from 2006-2007 with their parent's deployment records.

Mental and behavioral health visits were identified by using International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision, codes, according to the study, and the incidence rate ratio (IRR) of visits per year according to parental deployment status was determined with random-effects negative binomial regression modeling with longitudinal data analysis.

The mean age of child subjects was 5 years; 51% were male and 68% were white. Of the parents, 90% were male and 91% were married.

Lead author Gregory H. Gorman, MD, and colleagues found that the IRR of mental and behavioral health visits for children with a deployed parent compared with when a parent was home was 1.11. IRRs of pediatric anxiety, behavioral, and stress disorders when a parent deployed were calculated at 1.14, 1.19, and 1.18, respectively.

The researchers concluded that mental and behavioral health visits increased by 11% in children when a military parent deployed; behavioral disorders increased by 19% and stress disorders increased by 18%. These rates were “especially increased in older children and children of married and male military parents,” they noted.

One possible reason for this finding “may be that parents of these children are more likely to seek medical help. Children of deployed single parents often live with extended family or temporary guardians who may not know how to access health care services for children,” they wrote. These caregivers may not be aware of the child’s “normal” behavior, and therefore be unable to sense when there is a problem. This study, they said, “is a reminder that children of deployed parents need additional support during this time.”

For more:

  • Wartime Military Deployment and Increased Pediatric Mental and Behavioral Health Complaints
  • Parental Wartime Deployment and the Use of Mental Health Services Among Young Military Children
  • Pain as Part of Trauma Spectrum Disorder in Military Populations

What has your experience been in terms of treating children of military parents? Is enough being done to ensure that the needs of these patients are being met?