The Effects of Deployment on Children

by Carmen Turner-Schott, MSW, LCSW, Assistant Editor of Psychotherapy on

I have been a military spouse for the past 13 years. I have worked for many years helping military families cope with deployments and encouraged them to find effective strategies at handling this difficult time in their lives. The saddest thing is when I see the harsh effects of deployment on my own child. My husband left for his most recent deployment in September 2011, and this time it is for nine months. You would think that after five previous deployments that my daughter and I would have this down to a science, but this time it has been more difficult.

I started noticing behavior changes in my daughter at about the four-month mark. For the first few months she seemed like her normal, happy self. Then out of the blue, I started witnesses acting out behaviors and a personality change in her that worried me. Luckily, I had read the research on the cycle of deployment on children and realized what I was seeing. Sadly, many military families and loved ones of military families do not know what behavior is “normal” and what things are red flags to watch out for.

Research says that children going through deployment experience the same effects as children of divorce. This was an eye-opener for me and helped me have more sympathy for my daughter during her acting out phases. Children worry about what is going to happen to them, and they don’t always understand why the military parent had to leave. I remember my daughter was performing in her school play the night he was due to leave. She was doing great up on stage and spoke her lines perfectly. Then my husband went back to the classroom to pick her up after the recital, and as soon as she saw him she started crying. I saw him carrying her and turn down the hallway. I ran to follow them wondering what was wrong. I found her crying and telling him she did not want him to go. It was heartbreaking. This was the first time she has reacted this way before he deployed. The reason for this is that age has an important role on the behavioral responses of children and on how they react to the deployment. When she was younger she really was not old enough to understand what was going on or that he was gone.

Children’s reactions to a parent’s deployment will very by child, and by the child’s developmental stage and age. Usually very young children show traits of separation anxiety, temper tantrums and changes in eating habits. Teens often show apathy and become more defiant. Research shows that school-age children show a 40% decline in academic performance and experience mood changes when a parent deploys. After reading this, I asked my daughter’s teacher how she has been in class. She told me that she seemed “distracted,” and I realized her assignments were showing it. Her handwriting declined, and she was rushing and making mistakes on questions that she knew. This is a normal part of the process of deployment, and I find that it gets easier as time goes on. It helps to have a calendar to mark off the days and count down together, until daddy or mommy gets home.

Military spouses bear the burden of deployments for themselves and for their children. There are already significant risk factors for military families such as frequent moves, absence of the military parent and other stresses that impact military families. The parent that is left behind (usually the mother) carries the heavy load of increased responsibilities, isolation, fear, anxiety, loneliness and feelings of being overwhelmed by the situation. I always say strong spouses are what make the military work; because without the spouses they could not deploy or do the missions that they are required to do. The mental health of the parent left behind is also a significant factor on the resiliency and psychological impact on the children and teens in the home during a deployment.

According to, these are some of the signs of distress that children can express:

Preschool or Kindergarten Age Children
1. Clinging to people or favorite toy
2. Unexplained crying or tearfulness
3. Choosing adults over same-age playmates
4. Increased acts of violence toward people or things
5. Withdrawing and becoming very quiet
6. Sleeping difficulties and disturbances
7. Eating difficulties or change in eating patterns
8. Fear of new people or situations

School Age Children
1. A rise in complaints about headaches, stomachaches and illnesses
2. More irritable and crabby
3. Anger toward at-home parent

1. Any of the above
2. Acting out behaviors
3. Low self-esteem and self-criticism
4. Sudden or unusual school problems
5. Loss of interest in usual interests and hobbies

If you notice any of these reactions, stay calm. These behaviors are “normal” reactions from children during a deployment. If you feel overwhelmed, you can talk to a counselor or family member about the stress. If you feel that your child needs someone to talk to, set up an appointment with the school counselor or someone at the military base who can assist you, such as your Family Readiness Center. Remember that you are not alone. Children are resilient and military children are known to adapt extremely well to change, as they become adults. The experiences that they have will make them stronger and more aware about themselves and others. They learn to adapt from moving and experiencing family separations, which in turn creates a greater sense of self-esteem and purpose, as they grow older.


Eternal Gardener
Eternal G5 years ago

Always the weakest that suffer the most... they ought to be protected!

Kenneth D.
Kenneth Davies5 years ago

The answer is responsible parenting Love and discipline hand in hand

heather g.
heather g5 years ago

I read this article and then Will R.'s post which summed up many of my views. Today I read about the many children who escape Afghanistan on foot. Their families sell their property or give them their life savings to use for escaping the war. They are in a state of severe trauma and often walk through 8 or more countries, sleeping and walking on snow-covered ground. Of course, they are attacked, assaulted and spend time in prisons in different countries - so as a result, their journey often takes a year or more. They become separated from friends and family members, battle with starvation and bitter cold and are often left all alone in the world. The journalist noted the one boy who had continued to walk in his sneakers, was suffering from frostbite after crossing mountains in winter. Their most urgent concern is their families and for schooling, but mostly for peace. I found this report about the thousands of young migrant children quite heart-breaking. Please keep the victims of these never ending number of warlike campaigns uppermost in your heart - they are innocent of all the imagined wrongdoing and political spats that kill thousands and destroy their countries ....

Remember : War does not determine who is Right. War determines who is Left….

Will Rogers
Will Rogers5 years ago

I'm more concerned about the families of the people who are killed by soldiers. They are the ones that are really affected. Of course the children of soldiers are affected too, children have an innate sense of fairness and justice, even if they don't use it, and they know that their parent is a murderer, they are aware that their parent/s kill people for a living and is just as likely to die themself. War is a very uncivilised concept practiced by people who don't have the wit to solve things diplomatically, unless you are attacked of course...or if you're a Bully.

Joan Mcallister
5 years ago

I am not a military wife, but if I were I think I would have found this article most helpful. I think it must be really difficult on military families when one of the spouses is deployed and I do hope they get to read this article. Thanks for posting.

Nancy Black
Nancy Black5 years ago

In a military marriage, you have two heroes; the one that is active and deploys and the one that stays and keeps the family and homefires burning.

Sue P5 years ago

Interesting she didn't mention the multiple moves a military family sometimes has to make. Moving without deployment is stressfull, having to be reassigned/moved every three years on top of deployment must be incredibly difficult. New schools, new friends, new house...then a parent leaves for deployment.

Atocha B.
Mary F5 years ago

Thank you for such valuable information!

Deborah W.
Deborah W5 years ago

Not military, but don't understand how being pulled at an early age (or any growing-up age) from the only solid foundation and/or extended family and friend support and comfort system known can be good in the long-term.

Words like estranged, desocialization, instability, loyalty pop up in my mind as problematic areas that will need to be addressed at some point. SELF-centeredness in strength is often gained through sheer survival tactics, creating a lack of concern for others.

We need to bring all the troops home, no need to crap up any further the good things we still have.

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago

Thanks for the information.