WEDNESDAY, April 15, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- When military mothers are away at war, their teenage children are more likely to slip into trouble, from getting into fights to earning poor grades at school, a new study has found.
But adolescents whose mothers reported that they had strong family support during the deployment tended to fare better.
"Adolescents are in that difficult time of life where they are exposed to a lot of risk factors, possibly from their peer group," said study author Mona Ternus, an associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "They are at an intermediate stage where they want to break away and be independent, but they still want their parent there. The deployment interrupts them in their developmental stage."
Ternus asked 77 mothers who were in the military to fill out detailed surveys about their health and including perceptions of their child's behavior before, during and after their deployment. The children ranged in age from 10 to 18, though most were between 12 and 15.
About 75 percent of the mothers said their children were engaged in no risky behavior before their deployment.
But during and after the deployment, about the same number reported that their children were engaged in one or more risky behaviors.
Risky behaviors during deployment included a drop in school grades (45 percent), eating poorly (25 percent), getting less exercise (17 percent), getting into fights (16 percent), smoking (10 percent), drinking alcohol (9 percent) and using drugs (4 percent).
Some of the behaviors, including poor eating habits, improved after the mother's return. Others, such as lower grades, persisted, the study found.
There was also a correlation between the number of symptoms the mother reported during deployment -- such as cough, headaches, joint pain, back pain, muscle aches, chest pain and difficulty breathing -- and the number of days she was deployed. The findings were presented recently at a meeting of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States in San Antonio, Texas.
Women make up 16 percent of the 3.5 million members of the U.S. armed forces and 10 percent of the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they're being deployed in greater numbers than ever before, the study said.
With some service members on multiple deployments since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, the strains on military personnel and their spouses has been well documented.
But less is known specifically about military mothers and their adolescent children, said Keith Armstrong, director of couples and family therapy at the San Francisco Veteran Affairs Medical Center, and author of Courage After Fire: Coping Strategies for Troops Returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and Their Families.
While it stands to reason that having a mother leave during a crucial period of development would be disruptive to a child, the study's limitation is that it's "retrospective" and asked women's perceptions after the events had occurred, Armstrong said.
"In our country, mothers are taught they're responsible for any problem in the family," he said. "So if the deployment coincides with a child having a problem, they may attribute it to the deployment, which may or may not be true."
Ternus, who's a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, knows from experience the difficulties of deployment for mothers. She was deployed twice, when her daughter was 8 and 15.
During the second deployment, her daughter fell in with the wrong crowd and considered dropping out of high school, Ternus said.
It took years to repair the relationship between mother and daughter, Ternus said. But they did, and her daughter, now 21, has made the dean's list at her college.
And the message from the study is not that mothers shouldn't deploy, Ternus said.
Rather, women need to make sure they choose a good role model for their children when they do deploy, perhaps even a non-family member. Also, women should seek help from the military through its "family readiness" programs, as well as other volunteer and private support programs for military families.
"Women find meaning in this work, just as a man finds meaning in this work," she said. "Like dads, moms feel they are contributing to a greater good in the world."
The U.S. Department of Defense has more on resources for military families.