Children with parents or caregivers in the military are at a greater risk for using drugs or alcohol, bringing a weapon to school, and fighting than classmates who were not military connected, according to a new study. The research, published online Aug. 17 in JAMA Pediatrics, also found that military-connected kids were more likely to be bullied, and be the target of jokes, rumors and online harassment.
“These results suggest that a sizeable subset of military-connected students are struggling to cope with the ramifications of two long wars,” lead author Kathrine Sullivan, a PhD student in social work at the University of Southern California (USC), said in a university news release. “While a lot of military kids are doing well despite these stressors, many are in need of more support.”
According to the news release, it is estimated that more than 4 million students nationwide have had parents serve in the military since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these students are currently enrolled in U.S. public schools.
To determine whether rates of adverse outcomes are higher in military-connected teens during war, Sullivan and her colleagues analyzed data from the 2013 California Healthy Kids Survey. Participants included 54,679 military-connected kids and 634,034 nonmilitary-connected students in grades 7 through 11 who attendied public civilian schools in every county and almost all school districts in California.
Study findings showed that compared to children in civilian families, military-connected children were more than twice as likely to take guns to school and 81 percent more likely to bring knives. Military-associated kids were also at greater risk for being threatened with a weapon.
In addition, military-connected kids were more likely to have used prescription medications (36 percent vs. 27 percent), been in a fight (27 percent vs. 17 percent), and expressed fear of being beaten up (24 percent vs. 18 percent).
The picture for substance abuse was just as bleak. Military kids were 45 percent to 73 percent more likely than other children to use cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana, as well as to abuse prescription drugs.
These findings follow four smaller surveys conducted by the same research team in 2011. Those studies found that military-connected children had a higher rate for suicidal thoughts than classmates whose families were not associated with the military. The children in these studies also experienced more stress because of deployment of a parent and had trouble transitioning to new schools.
Compared to the 2011 study, the 2013 results related to substance abuse, victimization and carrying a weapon were significantly higher for military-connected students. “War-related stressors may accumulate over time, leading to higher rates of those behaviors two years later,” the researchers wrote.
The study authors noted that it was important for schools to know who their veteran- and military-connected students are and to be able to assess their needs and provide support.
“Based on the totality of findings from this study and others, further efforts are needed to promote resilience among military children who are struggling. More efforts in social contexts, including civilian schools and communities, to support military families during times of war are likely needed,” the study concluded.