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Quiz: If You Love Your Kids Should You Leave the Military?

Research on military kids is meant to help those most affected by more than a decade of war. Yet sometimes it seems deliberately compounded to freak out military parents.

According to this latest doom and gloom report from Child Trends, an online nonprofit research center, the greatest threat to military children is their separation from one or both parents — a major factor of military life that will not change any time soon.

These researchers note that developmentally, young children don’t possess the skills to understand why their parent is deployed. That’s true. Tell an infant that the big guy with the hairy chest will be home by Christmas and that kid will give you a blank infant stare. And spit up.

These researchers point out that every time a parent deploys the relationship with a child has to be reestablished. That’s pretty much right.  No toddler is going to have a meaningful relationship with their soldier even if they do have their own iPad and Skype account.

These researchers also mention that children are resilient. Millions of children have had their dads and/or moms deploy and return. They have PCSed a bunch of times. These crazy military kids learn to read and do long division and get their driver’s licenses and make out with appropriately attractive partners.

So how much should we parents really worry about raising our military brats? If we love our kids, should we get out right away because raising kids in this environment is insane? Should we ignore any troubling signs in our kids and hope they go away? Should we burn with a vague unease that something is really, really, terribly wrong?

I don’t think so.  I think the takeaway from the research is for parents to understand that it isn’t the presence of a single factor like parental absence that will affect our kids adversely. Your kid will probably not be traumatized because your Marine deployed on a ship for nine months and missed their birthday.

Instead, it is the combination of ongoing multiple serious factors that seems to push kids into the at risk category.

Take our quiz to find out how concerned you really need to be:

1. Are you depressed, anxious or angry? According to decades of research, military kids tend to mirror their at-home parent or caregiver.  If you are handling your distress well enough, your kids are likely to do the same. This really is the most important factor to keep in mind — which is why it is so important to get help when you need it.

2. Are you unable to respond to your child’s needs? If you are so depressed that you can’t get out of bed or so hungover that you can’t get your kids to school then kids do suffer. Children whose lives are conducted with a reliable routine do better than those who come from chaotic homes.

3. Did your servicemember die? Or was he or she seriously injured?  Trauma — real trauma like the kind that accompanies death — is a risk for all kids, not only those in the military.  It causes physiological effects to the child that can impact the health, academic achievement and behavioral adjustment. Awareness of this factor is essential.  Hopefully, that’s why this kind of research is being done — to fund programs and solutions.

4. Does your servicemember exhibit symptoms of PTSD?  If there is one thing we can learn from the accounts of children of Vietnam War vets, it is that living with untreated PTSD makes for a long hard childhood. The research shows that children who witness ongoing incidents of adults exhibiting symptoms of TBI or PTSD are especially at risk for negative behavioral and physical outcomes. Keep seeking a solution to the problem for the sake of your kids.

5. Is your servicemember abusing you or your child? Families whose servicemember is returning from a combat zone have a higher incidence of domestic abuse.  Here are some ways to get help.

So how many of these risk factors are you experiencing right now? Are these problems getting better or getting worse?  Clearly, the more factors your family experiences, the more concerned you should be. The military offers so many services to families because we all know that sometimes the demands of military life are more than people can actually handle alone.

I think it is equally important to note that the fewer risk factors you have, the less time you should spend worrying.  It isn’t having a parent in the military alone that puts kids at risk, it is the behavior of their distressed parents that affects them.

That is why we need to pay attention to the research. Consistently, research on military kids shows that children do best in a military family in which their needs are met, their parents have a strong relationship and their siblings provide support to each other.

Providing a consistent home-life and working on our relationships and getting help when we need help are all concrete things we can actually do to help our military children. So let’s move forward by doing all the things our kids need most.

About Jacey Eckhart

Jacey Eckhart is the Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Military.com. Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom.