Parental wartime deployment can be distressing for a child, regardless of their age. These children are at an increased risk for social, emotional, and behavioral problems, especially if there are preexisting psychological issues in the family.
A new clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Health and Mental Health Needs of Children in U.S. Military Families,” in the June 2013 issue of Pediatrics (published online May 27), addresses these concerns and provides recommendations for pediatricians and other health care providers who care for children who have family members serving in the military.
Half of the children of active duty military service members are taken care of by civilian (non-military) general pediatricians, before, during and after deployment.
“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,” said Beth Ellen Davis, MD, MPH, FAAP, co-author of the policy 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.”
In studies, 1 in 4 children of active-duty service members experienced symptoms of depression, 1 in 3 children reported excessive worry, and 1 in 2 children had trouble sleeping. Preschool-age children may experience high levels of emotional reactivity, anxiousness and withdrawal, compared to children whose parents are not deployed. Children between the ages of 5-17 are at high risk for emotional and behavioral problems, and may demonstrate increased emotional issues with longer parental deployments.
Tours of duty can last up to 18 months, and sometimes parents are deployed multiple times. Parents or caregivers who remain at home are also under increased stress, which can affect the mental health and well-being of children.
“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,” said Benjamin S. Siegel, MD, FAAP, co-author of the clinical report. “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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