Children in military families face unique challenges and stressors related to deployment and frequent relocation. However, these children also have access to an array of services of which civilian pediatricians and other care providers may be unaware.
New guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Uniformed Services details needs, challenges, and opportunities for military-connected children and points clinicians to resources for these families.
For clinicians who care for military-connected children, key suggestions outlined in the report include attainment of cultural competency; this begins with simply asking about the military status of families, wrote Cmdr. Chadley R. Huebner, MD, MPH, the lead author of the report published in.
Agives good grounding in military culture, he added.
Therecommended by the AAP as part of routine pediatric practice also will provide clinicians with valuable information to help guide care of military-connected children; asking about prior or current parental military service and deployment also will help guide care.
Up to half of children in military families receive care in civilian settings, according to Dr. Huebner. “Many children in military families live in settings remote from a military community, and civilian health providers are faced with caring for military children in their practices.”
Dr. Huebner, an active duty commander in the U.S. Navy, led the revision of a 2013 report on the health and mental health needs of children in U.S. military families.
The broad category of military-connected children includes not just the estimated 1.3 million children of active duty service members, but also children of 818,000 National Guard and Reserve members and more than 2 million military retirees. All told, about 4 million children are in military-connected families, with about a third of these aged 5 years or younger.
In an era where the United States has been involved in multiple conflicts, deployment is the best-known stressor for military families. “The stressors associated with deployment, including prolonged family separation, potential injury or death of a service member, and traumatic experiences, can have a cumulative negative effect on the entire family unit,” wrote Dr. Huebner.
Even in young children aged 8 years and under, mental and behavioral health visits increase during deployment; older children experience more psychosocial morbidity as parental stress increases, an effect that can be mitigated by military support systems. Much existing research focuses on “the immediate effects of wartime deployment, and more longitudinal studies are needed to assess the long-term effects,” he wrote.
Still, neglect and child maltreatment increase in military families that have experienced deployment, with the risk increasing at the time of redeployment.
In addition to the known family stresses of deployment, children in military families face frequent relocation, with transitions occurring every 2-4 years and an average of nine schools attended by high school graduation, according to government data cited by Dr. Huebner.
Relocation within the past year is associated with increased use of mental health services, and adolescents in this group saw more psychiatric hospitalizations and ED visits. However, increased resilience among children in military families has been seen in some studies, with frequent relocation associated with fewer problems in school and a positive attitude about the changes associated with moves.
And families turn to each other for support with frequent moves. “Because families often move away from extended family support, they often refer to the military community as a surrogate family that provides a support network,” wrote Dr. Huebner.
Reservists don’t relocate as frequently as active duty service members but are more likely to live in areas without military resources, and their children’s peers, teachers, and caregivers may not be aware of the special challenges of military life. Similar isolation may occur when veterans make the transition to civilian life, with changes in eligibility for and access to military services and benefits.