Examining the Effects of Deployment on Military Families

Boston, MA – On October 7, 2001 the United States entered a war in Afghanistan. Nine years later, the U.S. military is deployed in two oversea wars. Mental health professionals are turning their attention to service members, who are deploying more frequently and for longer periods of time. However, most research has focused on the mental health needs of soldiers deployed at war, and not the needs of their families. For this reason, a Boston University School of Social Work research team, headed by Associate Professor Ellen R. DeVoe and Assistant Professor Ruth Paris, set out to examine the effects of deployment on military families. They focused specifically on families with children under the age of five, as young children can be especially vulnerable to the effects of parental deployment. The article, “When a Parent Goes to War: Effects of Parental Deployment on Very Young Children and Implications for Intervention,” appears in the October edition of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

According to the article, “The emerging but robust body of research documenting the mental health needs of returning service members, the impact of those conditions on the family, and the unique developmental vulnerabilities of young children in this context, build a strong case for making appropriate services available to families with young children. In addition to facilitating family reintegration by strengthening the parent-child relationship, support during the post-deployment period may serve to mitigate the legacy of combat stress in service-member parents and provide a powerful foundation for regaining a healthy developmental trajectory for young children.”

Previous studies have shown that children who are not able to develop secure relationships with their parents at a young age may experience long-term consequences. Babies and toddlers especially are not able to process sudden separations and reappearances of deployed parents. Furthermore, young children are disproportionately represented in military families with a young parent. In 2008, the Department of Defense reported that almost half a million children in the United States under the age of five have at least one parent on active duty.

The goal of the article was first to review existing literature on how parental combat stress and deployment impacts young children, parents, and parent-child relationships. Past research indicates that multiple deployments can severely limit service members’ involvement with their children and create significant stress for service members and their families. Service members returning home with injuries, disabilities and war-related mental-health symptoms (such as post-traumatic stress, irritability, anxiety and hypersensitivity) face additional challenges. Recent data on veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraqi Wars estimate that 40% of those seeking service post-deployment due so because of mental health concerns.

Secondly, the article aimed to examine existing programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers to determine intervention principles that might easily translate to a program for military families during the reintegration period. After looking at a number of different models, the authors suggest home-based interventions are the most promising form of treatment for service members and their families.

Based on their findings, DeVoe and Paris proposed a program called “Strong Families Strong Forces (SFSF)” to help service members reintegrate into home life.” In 2008, the Department of Defense issued principal investigators DeVoe and Paris a four-year grant to create a program for service families with children under the age of five. In cooperation with the Massachusetts and Rhode Island National Guard and Reserves, the program specifically addresses families with a parent at the reintegration phase of the deployment cycle.

The SFSF program concentrates on addressing parenting stress and parent’s mental health, and easing the returning service member’s reintegration into the family. DeVoe and Paris’ team members refer to themselves as “family specialists” who visit each family for eight sessions within a year of the service member coming home. The program has been well-received among military families so far and is already showing signs of success. According to the researchers, parents in the program seem highly satisfied and say that communication and parent-child relationships in their family have improved.

The research team began conducting individual interviews with service members and their spouses in November of 2008 to assess the need for such a family-based program. A year later they introduced a pilot version of Strong Families Strong Forces to a small group of military parents and children. Currently, the team has entered the randomized control trial period, and hopes to enroll roughly 130 families over the next year.

“The goal of our program is to military parents in re-connecting with their young children when they return from war.” said DeVoe. “Critical components of the work focus on enhancing parental understanding of the impact of deployment separation on the child addressing the effects of war-related experiences on the service member’s parenting.”

DeVoe and Paris’ program is generating a great deal of national interest. They have attended a number of conferences, and last July they were invited by the Department of Defense to attend a meeting with five other principal investigators participating in Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized private research university with more than 30,000 students participating in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs. BU consists of 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.

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Contact: Jason London, 617-358-5149, [email protected]