Overall Effects on Children


Military families have long been known to be resilient and stable. But a decade of wars has taken its toll, and research is beginning to measure effects on families.

Infants and Younger Children

  • There have been no recent studies of infants of deployed parents, though maternal stress and postpartum depression have long been known to cause negative outcomes for infants, including sadness or anxious and withdrawal behavior.[i]
  • Deployment can increase a mother’s chance of postpartum depression. One study reports that while about 11 percent of women with non-deployed spouses screened positive for postpartum depression, 27 percent of women with deployed spouses screened positive – a risk factor that more than doubled.[ii]
  • Children 18 months to age 3 appeared to fare much better than older peers. A study of Marine children found that these young children did not exhibit as many negative symptoms as older siblings, perhaps because they received extra attention from their non-deployed parents.[iii]
  • Among 3-5 year olds, about 20 percent of children with deployed parents exhibited “externalizing” or troublesome behaviors, such as hitting and throwing tantrums, which is about twice that of the general population.[iv]

School-Age Children

  • In general, interactions with peers and teachers who don’t understand deployment issues put children at the high rates of risk for trouble in school.[v]
  • Deployments place school-age children and adolescents at high risk for a range of negative mood and behavioral changes, including anger, apathy, anxiety, depression, withdrawal, decline in school performance, loss of interest in normal activities and social isolation. [vi]
  • Children experience academic problems and while their parents are away. About 20 percent of military children with deployed parent(s) experienced depression and problems in school. [vii]
  • Children worry and get depressed when their parents are gone. In a study of Army children, more than one-third responded with changes in school performance, lashing out in anger, worrying, hiding emotions, disrespecting parents and authority figures, feeling a sense of loss and symptoms consistent with depression.[viii]
  • A new study suggests children of deployed parents are more than twice as likely to carry a weapon, join a gang, or fight. High school-age daughters in particular were nearly three times more likely than their civilian counterparts to join a gang or fight, and were more than twice as likely to carry a weapon to school. Similarly, 10-20 percent of male and female adolescents in deployed families said they were gang members. [xiii]

Age-Specific Issues  

  • Military children ages 5-12 years have higher rates of mental health problems than the general population. Nearly one-third of military children score as “high risk” for child psychosocial morbidity, which means a lack of ability to function normally in social groups. This rate is 2.5 times the national average. [ix]
  • As they grow older, children’s emotional problems continue and increase. One study found that one-third of military children ages 11–17 experienced emotional and behavioral difficulties at rates higher than civilian children. Boys reported more problem behaviors such as fighting, while girls reported more anxiety symptoms.[x]
  • Adolescents exhibit a wide range of negative effects. Many adolescents reported changes in their behavior during parental deployment, including changes in school performance and symptoms consistent with depression.[xi]
  • Despite negative factors, many adolescents willingly taking on more responsibility at home, assuming the role of another parent for their younger siblings; they also attempt to protect their at-home parents and siblings from negative emotions and stress.[xii]

[i] L.B. Finkel, M.L. Kelley, and J. Ashby. “Geographic Mobility, Family, and Maternal Variables as Related to the Psychosocial Adjustment of Military Children.” Military Medicine, 168(2003): 1019-1024.

[ii] Jeffrey H. Millegan, MD; Daniel Robrecht; MD, Lynn Leventis; MD, Crescitelli Jo, RN; and Robert McLay, MD, PhD. “Spousal military deployment as a risk factor for postpartum depression.” Journal of Reproductive Medicine, 53(2008): 860-864.
[iii] Molinda M. Chartrand, MD; Deobrah A. Frank, MD; Laura F. White, PhD; Timothy R. Shope, MD, MPH. “Effect of parents’ wartime deployment on the behavior of young children in military families.” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 162(2008): 1009-1014.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Anita Chandra, Rachel M. Burns, Terri Tanielian, Lisa H. Jaycox, and Molly M. Scott. “Understanding the Impact of Deployment on Children and Families: Findings from a Pilot Study of Operation Purple Camp Participants.” Working Paper. RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, 2008.
[vi] American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Military Deployment Services for Youth Families andService Members. The Psychological Needs of U.S. Military Service Members and Their Families: A Preliminary Report. Washington, DC: 2007.
[vii] Dennis K. Orthner, Roderick Rose (2005). “Adjustment of Army Children to Deployment Separations.” Washington, DC: Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.
[viii] Angela Huebner, Jay Mancini, Ryan Wilcox, Saralyn Grass, and Gabriel Grass. “ Parental Deployment and Youth in Military Families: Exploring Uncertainty and Ambiguous Loss.” Family Relations, 56(2007), 112-122
[ix] Erik. M. Flake, MD; Beth Ellen Davis, MD, MPH; Patti L. Johnson, PhD; and Laura S. Middleton, PhD. “The Psychosocial Effects of Deployment on Military Children.” Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 30(2009), 271-278.
[x] Chandra et al. “Children on the Homefront: The Experience of Children from Military Families.”
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Huebner et al. “Parental Deployment and Youth in Military Families: Exploring Uncertainty and Ambiguous Loss.”  
[xiii] Associated Press. “Study: Violence More Common Among Students With Deployed Parents.” Education Week (2011).