Parents’ Military Deployments Take Emotional Toll on Teens

Release Date: July 26, 2011 | By Glenda Fauntleroy, Contributing Writer
Research Source: American Journal of Public Health


  • Having a deployed parent can harm teens’ mental health and quality of life, according to a new study.
  • Teens with a deployed parent are more likely to be depressed or have thoughts of suicide than teens of civilian parents.
  • High schoolers with a deployed parent are more likely to binge drink and use drugs than their peers of civilian parents.
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When military deployments call for their parents to serve abroad, adolescents have a tough time adjusting, and a new study shows their moods often lead to risky behavior.

The wars waging in Iraq and Afghanistan for most of the past decade have significantly influenced the mental health of many children of U.S. servicemen and women.

The study, which appears online and in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health, used data from 10,606 adolescents who took part in the 2008 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey collected in public schools in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades. The survey measured the teens’ well-being and asked them to rate their quality of life through statements such as, “I feel I am getting along with my parents or guardians” and, “I feel good about myself.”

Among these teens, the study found differences between boys and girls, and according to age.

“Adolescent boys with military parents are experiencing more adverse effects on well-being compared to their female peers,” said lead author Sarah Reed, of the Department of Health Services and the Maternal and Child Health Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

When compared to teens of civilian parents, 8th-grade girls of deployed parents had higher odds of reporting thoughts of suicide. Eighth-grade boys had higher thoughts of suicide and low quality of life. Likewise, in the 10th and 12th grades, adolescent boys with deployed parents had higher odds of depression, low quality of life and thoughts of suicide.

Military teens also were engaging more in risky habits. In the 10th and 12th grades, 33 percent of teen boys with deployed parents reported binge drinking in the past two weeks compared with 23 percent of the male teens with civilian parents. Thirty-seven percent of male military teens also reported drug use — again higher than the 22 percent of their civilian peers.

Reed said her team is hopeful the study brings more attention to the needs of military families.

“It’s time to focus more on the children who are left behind,” she said. “All service members and their families, including active duty, National Guard, reserves and veterans, deserve the support necessary to recover and heal from war.”

Jeanie Alter, project manager in the Indiana Prevention Resource Center at Indiana University in Bloomington, said the study was timely because the federal government is focusing efforts on integrating substance abuse and mental health toward enlistees and their families.

“With nearly 15,000 National Guard members, Indiana has the fourth largest National Guard in the nation and about three-fourths of the members have been deployed at some point in their career,” Alter said. “We know they suffer from substance abuse at greater rates, thus putting their families at risk.”

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For More Information:

Reach the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, at (202) 387-2829 or

The American Journal of Public Health is the monthly journal of the American Public Health Association. Visit for more information. Complimentary online access to the journal is available to credentialed members of the media. Contact Patricia Warin at APHA, (202) 777-2511

Reed SC, Bell J, Edwards TC. Adolescent well-being in Washington State military families. Am J Public Health 101(9), 2011.

Tags for this article:
Parent/Child Relationships   Depression/Anxiety   PTSD   Children and Young People's Health  

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