Pilot Study Examines Impact of Deployment on Families

Military deployment of a parent poses significant stress to a family, including anxiety and depression that may negatively impact parenting behaviors and relationships, according to Candice Alfano, associate professor in clinical psychology at the University of Houston (UH) and director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center for Kids (SACK).

“Over the past decade more than two million U.S. military service members have deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq as part of the War on Terror. Approximately the same number of children has had to cope with parental deployment, in some cases multiple times” said Alfano. “The media often focuses the grave physical and mental risks that soldiers face during deployment, and rightfully so. But there are other stressors and risks that service members face here at home also deserving of our attention– specifically risk to the adjustment and well-being of their families.”

Alfano serves as principal investigator for a pilot study examining the impact of deployment on families titled, “Risk and Resilience in Military Families.” The study aims to contribute to understanding of the effects of single and repeated deployments on families by examining relationships between deployment, child behaviors and emotions, parenting stress and practices, family relationships, sleep patterns, and coping within the family. Alfano hopes that findings from the study might be used to develop effective prevention/intervention programs for military families struggling with the long-term effects of war.

“These families have endured lengthy separations, multiple relocations, disruption in family routines, and the very real threat of harm to their loved one, but we know very little about how these unique stressors impact children,” she said. Alfano also points out that stress and hardship do not necessarily remit when service members return home. “A parent’s new physical and/or psychological disability, occupational and financial stressors, and altered family roles have the potential to create more long-term challenges for families.”

A unique aspect of the study is that information from every member of the family will be collected, as compared to previous studies that have been based solely on parent reports. Another distinctive feature is its focus on sleep. Alfano notes that, “Insomnia is the most common problem reported by soldiers after deployment, and when you do not get adequate sleep, every single aspect of your life can be negatively impacted. It affects your physical health. It affects the way you parent. It affects the way you deal with stress and conflict.” However, it is not only service members who experience problems sleeping. “Research shows that children struggling with emotional problems tend to also struggle with sleep. In fact, sleep can be the first place that signs of stress pop up.”

The study will also examine specific types of coping strategies used within families. “We know that some kids deal with deployment better than others, and we want to learn from these children so that we can help the kids who cope less well,” she said.

Alfano is a licensed clinical psychologist and expert in sleep and anxiety disorders, whose research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense (DoD).  She is the co-author of the book, “Child Anxiety Disorders: A Guide to Research and Treatment,” and co-editor of the book, “Social Anxiety Disorder in Adolescents and Young Adults: Translating Developmental Science into Practice.” She also serves as associate editor of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

Military families being recruited are asked to complete a packet of confidential questionnaires by mail. No in-person visits are required, and each family member (active-duty/reservist/veteran service members, spouses/partners, and children) will receive a $10 gift card for their participation. Families eligible for participation include those with: 1) at least one parent who has deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and/or Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF); and 2) at least one child between the ages of 2 and 17.

To learn more about the research study, please contact Jessica Balderas at (713) 743-3400 or by email at sack@uh.edu.



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