Family stress study seeks Iraq, Afghanistan veterans with kids

Wyatt Burger clung to his dad, Staff Sgt. Paul Burger, as Utah airmen returned from a 2011 deployment to Afghanistan. (Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Wyatt Burger clung to his dad, Staff Sgt. Paul Burger, as Utah airmen returned from a 2011 deployment to Afghanistan.
(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Millions of American children have seen a parent deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan in the past decade. Now researchers want to examine how they have coped, with the goal of helping military families negotiate the long-term effects of war.

“The media often focuses [on] the grave physical and mental risks that soldiers face during deployment, and rightfully so,” said Candice Alfano, associate professor in clinical psychology at the University of Houston.

“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,” she added in a news release from the university. “We know very little about how these unique stressors impact children.”

Alfano is principal investigator for the pilot study, titled “Risk and Resilience in Military Families.” It will probe the effects of single and repeated deployments by examining family relationships, child behaviors and emotions, parenting stress and practices and coping within the family.

Deployment of a parent can trigger anxiety and depression that may negatively impact parenting and relationships, said Alfano, a licensed clinical psychologist.

Researchers will collect information from every member of the family, instead of relying only on parent reports, and will ask each of them about their sleeping patterns. Alfano also serves as director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center for Kids (SACK).

While insomnia is the most common problem reported by soldiers after deployment, Alfano said,  “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.”

A lack of sleep “affects your physical health. It affects the way you parent. It affects the way you deal with stress and conflict,” she added.

Family stress and hardship do not necessarily end when service members return home, Alfano noted. “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.”

She hopes the study’s findings might be used to develop prevention and intervention programs for military families. Researchers will 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.

To be eligible to participate in the study, families must:

• Have at least one parent who has deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and/or Operation Iraqi Freedom; and

• Have at least one child between the ages of 2 and 17.

The families will complete confidential questionnaires by mail, and no in-person visits by researchers are required. Each family member will receive a $10 gift card for their participation.

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

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