Military kids' stress rises during missions

Teens in military families are often burdened by additional emotional stress when a parent is deployed to Afghanistan, according to a new Canadian study.

Researchers from the University of New Brunswick, the University of Alberta, Ryerson University, and York University released the findings of their groundbreaking research on Thursday that examined students at Oromocto High School near Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, who recently had a parent serving in the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.

The researchers reported the teens worried their parents would not return home or would come back "different."

The study found that stress caused concerns at home. The young people felt a sense of responsibility for the emotional stability of their other parent and for any younger siblings at home. The teen felt additional stress if the parent remaining in Canada was having difficulty with the other parent being away on the military mission.

Lead investigator Deborah Harrison of UNB discovered many of the students felt they had to mature beyond their years.

"They were very aware of the problems of their parents and they were doing everything they could to help and they had a mature understanding of what their parents were going through," she said.

The teens reported feelings of isolation in attempting to deal with those problems, according to the study.

In particular, adolescent girls took on a large share of the family's emotional burden when one parent was overseas.

Once the deployment wrapped up, the psychological stress would be prolonged if the returning parent developed post-traumatic stress disorder, said Harrison.

"We found that family life was almost always negatively affected by an injured parent's symptoms of anger and depression. Some adolescents reported needing to go through a process of grieving the loss of their family as it had been before the deployment. They also reported feeling very isolated — along with their families — by the stigma against non-physical injuries that exists in rank-and-file army culture."

Despite some of those stresses, the research found students felt proud of their personal growth as members of a military family.

In a larger student body survey, their psychological well-being was the same as their civilian peers.

That doesn't surprise School District 17 superintendent David McTimoney, a former principal at Oromocto High School.

"We would have had an idea that military students are resilient ... that maps it out for us, that shows yes, indeed, there is resilency."

The school district was a partner in the study. It plans to use the findings to try to improve support for students from military families.

CFB Gagetown, in Oromocto, near Fredericton, is one of the largest training bases in the Commonwealth.

Harrison's study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

It is a part of a larger study into the mental health and well-being of adolescents in military families.

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