UW Today

October 31, 2011

Children of deployed military at greater risk of engaging in violent behavior

Adolescent boys with at least one parent in the military are at elevated risk of engaging in school-based physical fighting, carrying a weapon and joining a gang, according to researchers at the University of Washingtons School of Public Health.  Lead author Sarah Reed and team looked at the strain of military deployment on U.S. families, particularly its toll on adolescent boys and girls whose parents are on active duty. The research is based on data from the 2008 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey of more than 10,000 adolescents in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades of public schools.

The study finds that military deployment is associated with 1.77 higher odds of physical fighting and 2.14 higher odds of gang membership among adolescent boys in 8th grade. Girls in 8th grade with at least one parent in the military were at twice the risk of carrying a weapon.  Study findings were presented October 31 at the American Public Health Associations annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

“This study raises serious concerns about an under-recognized consequence of war,” said Reed, who has a masters degree in public health from the UW and now works at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Mass. “How children cope with their parents deployment is a real issue that countless families are confronted with every day.  There is a unique opportunity here to intervene and offer these children – who are acutely vulnerable to negative influences—the support they need so they dont turn to violence as a way to help cope.”

According to the study, older youth have a higher likelihood of engaging in risky behavior.  In 10th and 12th grade, girls with a deployed parent had higher odds of reporting school-based weapon carrying (2.2) and physical fighting (2.6) and being a member of a gang (2.84).  Boys with a deployed parent were at increased risk of school-based weapon carrying (2.87) and physical fighting (2.48), and gang membership (2.08).

Researchers said some youth miss out on the opportunity to learn positive health behaviors while a parent is serving. They cite deployment cycle stress, long and multiple deployments, challenges in accessing support services and emotional distress of the non-deployed parent as possible pathways to missed opportunities.

Reed and team emphasize the urgent need for greater support of innovative school- and community-based initiatives that improve the health and safety of youth in military families. In 2010, almost two million United States children had at least one parent serving in the military. This is a follow-up study that Reed and her team conducted earlier this year that analyzed mental health problems of children with military parents.

This news item was adapted from an American Public Health Association press release.