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Add aggressive kids to deployment's toll

Study finds more behavorial issues in preschoolers

By Carla K. Johnson
Associated Press / November 4, 2008
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CHICAGO - Preschoolers with a parent away at war were more likely to show aggression than other young children in military families, according to the first published research on how the very young react to wartime deployment.

Hitting, biting and hyperactivity - "the behaviors parents really notice" - were more frequent when a parent was deployed, said lead author Dr. Molinda Chartrand, a pediatrician on active duty in the Air Force.

The small study, which included fewer than 200 children, adds to previous evidence of the stress that deployment puts on families. Last year, a study of almost 1,800 Army families worldwide found that reports of child abuse and neglect were 42 percent higher during times when the soldier-parent was deployed.

This time, researchers looked at families living on a large Marine base. (The base wasn't identified in the study, which was conducted last year.) Children 3 to 5 years old with a deployed parent scored an average of 5 points higher for behavior problems on two questionnaires widely used in child psychology than did the children without a deployed parent.

About 1 in 5 of the older preschoolers with a parent at war displayed troubling emotional or behavioral signs.

Since the war began in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, "this is the first time any data have been published on these little kids," said Chartrand, who conducted the study while at Boston University School of Medicine.

The researchers surveyed parents and child-care providers of 169 preschool-age children. Parents, mostly mothers, answered questions on their children's behavior and emotional state. Parents also completed questionnaires on their own stress and depression.

The age of the children made a big difference in the study, which appears in this month's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

While older preschoolers had trouble, deployment had the opposite effect on children younger than 3, yielding fewer behavior problems as rated by parents and caregivers.

The researchers speculated that, with fathers away, the younger children had more time to bond with their mothers, a benefit for that age group. But preschoolers 3 and older may be more negatively affected by their fathers' absence.

In a few families, it was the mother who was away at war, but for most (92 percent), it was the father. They had been away an average of about four months at the time of the surveys.

Children with existing conditions, such as autism or attention-deficit disorder, were excluded from the study, and the researchers took into account the at-home parent's depression and stress.

The study's limits made the results especially notable to Michelle Kelley, a psychology professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., who was not involved in the project but has done similar research with older children in military families.

"You're pulling out the mom's depressive symptoms and her stress so the difference in the kids is above and independent of that," Kelley said. "If these kids are having difficulty, it's pretty likely that other kids are having difficulty as well."

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