Psychological researchers know that soldiers on the battlefront experience significant physiological and psychological stress. But, until now, no one had ever looked at the soldiers' children to see how they reacted, physically and psychologically, to the stress of having a parent at war.
Vernon Barnes, a researcher at the Medical College of Georgia, studied 121 teenagers in 2003, shortly after at the beginning of hostilities in Iraq. Some had military parents in Iraq, some had a parent in the military who was not deployed, and some came from civilian families. "What we found was that the military-deployed dependents exhibited significantly higher heart rates," he says, adding that the military dependents had higher blood pressures as well.
Barnes asked the adolescents to fill out two questionnaires about their attitudes and emotions. One measured the presence and extent of post-traumatic stress disorder. The other was called the Psycho-Social Resources Scale. "[That] measures loss of psychosocial resources such as loss of control, loss of hope and perceived support, loss of optimism," he explains. "What we did find was the military dependents scored higher on the post-traumatic stress disorder checklist. And the other instrument also indicated greater stress."
Early increases in heart rate and blood pressure that carry over into adult years can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Since that can lead to problems such as heart attacks or strokes, Barnes and his team recommended, "that youth with family members in the military, particularly those that are deployed overseas, should have increased attention from the parents, the educators and counselors during the period of active conflict." He also suggested that some forms of stress reduction, such as anger management, life skills training and even meditation can help children cope with the stress of having a parent at war.
The research appears in the journal Military Medicine.