Children of military personnel may be at an increased risk for social, emotional and behavioral problems, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Published May 27, Memorial Day, in the academy's journal Pediatrics, the new clinical report aims to raise awareness among pediatricians for the mental health needs for military children.
Authored by Dr. Ben S. Siegel and Dr. Beth Ellen Davis, who serve as members on the Committee On Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health and Section on Uniformed Services, the report points out about 60 percent of U.S. service members have families while about 2.3 million military members have been deployed since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq about a decade ago.
"In the past 10 years, more than 2 million children in the U.S. have experienced the emotional and stressful event of being separated from a loved one deployed for active duty," Davis said in a statement. "Most children cope and adapt quite well, but all children experience a heightened sense of fear and worry during a parent's deployment. It's important for pediatricians caring for these families to be aware of their family's situation so they can guide them appropriately."
To children, wartime deployment is a period that may signal separation from a loved one, an increased sense of danger and daily uncertainty, according to the authors.
Studies they reviewed showed that one in four children of active-duty service members experience symptoms of depression, one in two report trouble sleeping and about one in three children of active-duty military personnel experience excessive worrying.
The mental health effects appear to span all ages. Children and adolescents between ages 5 and 17 were at a higher risk for emotional and behavioral problems, with emotional issues being linked to longer parental deployments, the report showed. Preschool-aged kids meanwhile showed high levels of emotional reactivity, anxiety and withdrawal compared to kids of parents who have not been deployed.
Tours of duty might last up to 18 months, and parents can be deployed multiple times. This can add stress to the remaining parent or caregiver who stays at home, which too can affect a child's mental health and well-being.
Some service members could return with a traumatic brain injury, anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the authors, and spouses and their children can also be affected by these changes.
The report's authors are calling on pediatricians to be prepared to meaningfully address any wartime deployment issues.
"Asking 'How are you doing with this deployment?' may be the single most important family assessment question," they wrote to pediatricians. The authors added that after childbirth especially is a time of heightened risk for depression among partners of deployed service members, and additional probing might be warranted.
"By understanding the military family and the stressful experiences of parental wartime deployment, all pediatricians, both active duty and civilian, and other health care providers, can be the 'front line' in caring for U.S. military children and their families," Siege said in a statement. "Pediatricians play a critical role in identifying how well or poorly a child or family responds to a major stressor such as an extended deployment, and can provide the necessary education and support, including referral to a mental health professional when needed."
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