Stress and resilience in children of deployed parents drive two new studies

How do children of military parents really respond to a parent’s deployment?

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 resilience.

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 currently deployed.

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 children.

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 said.

“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 said.

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 son.

“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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