Background & Significance

Perhaps not since the attack on U.S. soil at Pearl Harbor, have American military families been under their current degree of stress. But like the events of September 11th, the nontraditional aspects of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and related operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have made these current conflicts uniquely challenging for military families. Current war operations have required more frequent and lengthier deployments, higher exposure to combat among those deployed, greater reliance on reservists and National Guard units, and constant threats from urban and terrorist combat strategies, such as the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and roadside bombs. It is not surprising that soldiers may have difficulty handling stress under these conditions, as there can be little time to decompress when they resume their roles as parents and spouses. Very young children (age 5 years and younger) who have an active duty parent(either mother or father) are particularly vulnerable because they are faced with lengthy separation from caregivers compromising the parent-child relationship. This relationship can be further strained when a soldier-parent returns home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Department of Defense (DOD) estimates that there are approximately 2 million children, of whom 40% are younger than five years, who have at least one parent who is active duty (Office of Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, 2004). In 2007, an estimated 700,000 U.S. children have at least one parent who is deployed (APA, 2007).

Young children of service members with PTSD face multiple vulnerabilities, including: the impact of deployment separation; the compromised mental health status of the parent left behind; and the impact of war zone-related trauma on the parent/service member’s ability to reestablish the parent-child relationship and parenting role.  Because of their developmental capacity to deal with prolonged separation, young children can be especially vulnerable to stressors of parental deployment. Despite the resiliency of many military families, this type of separation can constitute a developmental crisis for a young child.


  • Cozza & Lieberman 2007: with repeated and lengthy deployments, young children of service members are at risk of attachment disturbances, depression and anxiety responses
  • Gorman & Fitzgerald 2007: Within the cycle of deployment, very young children do not have the cognitive ability to process either the separation or the sudden reappearance of a deployed parent
  • Jensen et al, 1989
  • Jensen et al, 1991: The data found on children who had a parent deployed in Operation Desert Storm revealed increased but sub-clinical levels of anxiety and depression, with increased risk for younger children.
  • Rosen, Teitlebaum, & Westhuis, 1993
  • Kelley 1994: In a study of Navy mothers, children of employed mothers displayed more internalizing behaviors than those without deployment, and mothers’ reported parenting stress was associated with the period within the deployment cycle
  • Chartrand 2007: The characteristics of Operation Desert storm were very different from OIF in terms of brevity and combat exposure (). Thus, OIF is likely to have continued and long-term impact on children in military families of this generation.