How do children of military parents really respond to a parent's
Two new studies will for the first time combine biochemical data
with psychological assessments to see how children cope with the
stress of separation, and may provide insight into how we develop
Spc. Spring Sullivent, 33, of Elk Grove Village, brought her
5-year-old son Gideon to live with her sister in Pennsylvania while
she deployed to Kuwait for a year with the Illinois National Guard
in September 2010.
"I think overall he did well," she said. "He had his moments
where he was really bad for a little while, but then he'd be fine.
It was back and forth."
Two groundbreaking new studies are examining biochemical
indicators such as stress levels and sleep patterns to determine
whether reactions like Gideon's are different from children who
experience other kinds of separation from their parents.
1.9 million children in the United States have at least one
parent serving in the military, according to a 2011 Department of
Defense study. Of these children, 220,000 have a parent who is
Deborah Beidel, professor of psychology at the University of
Central Florida, is leading a Department of Defense-funded study
focusing on children ages 7 to 17 with at least one military
parent. She will also be collecting data on control groups of
families with parents in the military who are not deployed, parents
who are not in the military but who are separated, such as divorced
parents, and two-parent families. The study will be conducted at
sites in Orlando, Fla., Houston and Honolulu and Hilo in Hawaii
over the next three years.
"We wanted to make sure that anything we were talking about with
respect to the military was really looking at military deployment
as opposed to civilian separation of parents and children, because
any kind of separation from a parent could lead to some adjustment
problems in the children and in the family," Beidel said.
At the University of Houston, Candice Alfano, an associate
professor of psychology, is conducting research at the university's
Sleep and Anxiety Center for Kids. Her study is recruiting children
ages 2 to 17 whose parents have returned from deployment with any
branch of service in connection with the global war on terror.
"War and deployment have a very unique set of risks, which most
importantly includes potential harm befalling a parent," Alfano
said. These parents, she said, "have children who have grown up
during a time of war. They've never known anything else. They've
never known a time when Mom or Dad doesn't deploy. We really don't
know how that shapes development."
Both studies will measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol,
as well as sleep patterns, which will be measured by an actigraph,
or "sleep watch," which tracks movement during periods of rest.
Both studies also hope to produce intervention programs for parents
and children, if military families demonstrate a special need.
"We're also looking at resilience, so we're not just starting
off with the assumption that something is going to be wrong with
these children," Beidel said. "It doesn't necessarily create a
psychological disorder when there's a change or disruption in your
life. But it may produce some temporary stress."
Collecting physiological data in these cases is important
because "biological measures do not have any filter on them,"
Beidel said. "[They] give us another avenue by which we can assess
stress responses that's not necessarily filtered by what people
think they should be saying in a situation."
According to Beidel, boys tend to minimize their stress when
they self-report, because of societal expectations that boys
refrain from expressing those feelings. "We know that boys get just
as upset and just as anxious as girls do when we measure their
heart rate or their cortisol," she said.
Alfano and Beidel both plan to study how military families are
succeeding in coping with the stress of deployment, in addition to
determining whether deployment causes outsized or unusual stress in
Beidel noted that military families have built-in support
networks in the many other families of deployed service members and
in the military itself.
She also said that a deployed parent is likely to come back into
the family, as opposed to a divorce situation, in which the two
parents will likely never live together again.
The baseline expectations about parental separation among
military children may be different from other children too, Beidel
"The children, in many cases, particularly among active duty
soldiers, are used to some separations, are used to moving around,
so they're used to changes in their family adjustments," she
Spc. Sullivent said that while her National Guard unit is
preparing to deploy again, she has chosen not to waive her
three-year dwell policy, which allows her to stay home with her
"I know that right now my son would not be able to handle
another separation," she said. "So I have had to make a choice
between going with my unit where I belong and being mom. Being mom
won this time."
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