Parenting After War: Service Member PTSD Symptomatology and Anxiety and Depression in Children
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Background: As the Global War on Terror (GWOT) continues, there is deep concern about the effects of repeated parental deployments on the well-being of America’s military-family children. While many military families have demonstrated remarkable adaptability and resilience during these stressful times, other families have fared much worse. A growing body of research details these struggles showing higher rates of family conflict, child mental health problems, and child maltreatment in relation to increases in service member total months deployed to a combat zone. The current study examined whether GWOT service members’ overall PTSD symptoms and the four PTSD symptom clusters (re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing, and hyperarousal) influenced anxiety and depression symptoms in dependent children. We also examined the role of two salient and potentially modifiable explanatory variables of this relationship – service members’ sleep disturbance and use of corporal punishment - expecting both to account for partial variance in the parent PTSD- child anxiety/depression relationship. Methods: Data from 48 military families (48 veteran/service members; 78 children) participated in this study. The average age of participating service member parents at the time of the study was 39.13 (SD = 6.28). The majority of service member participants were active duty (n = 36; 75%), enlisted (n = 33; 68.8%), and completed an average of 2.42 (SD = 1.05) deployments in support of GWOT. The average age of children participating were 11.74 (SD = 3.21) with a slight majority of females (n = 41; 52.6%). Service member participants completed self-report measures measuring severity of PTSD symptomology and sleep disturbances. Child participants completed self-report measures measuring anxiety, depression, and parenting practices. Results: Hierarchical linear regressions revealed overall PTSD symptoms did significantly predict greater levels of child anxiety and child depression. However, there was insufficient evidence individual PTSD symptom clusters (re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing, and hyperarousal) predicted greater levels of child anxiety and child depression. Multivariate regressions revealed overall PTSD symptoms, as well as each PTSD symptom cluster, significantly predicted increased levels of sleep disturbance in service members. However, we did not find evidence parental sleep disturbances directly impacted child anxiety or depression. Multivariate regressions also revealed overall PTSD symptoms predicted greater use of corporal punishment when disciplining children, which in turn partially mediated the association with greater anxiety in children, but not depression. When individual symptom clusters were analyzed, re-experiencing and numbing symptom clusters specifically predicted greater use of corporal punishment, which in turn partially mediated the effect on child anxiety. No evidence of indirect effects were found for child depression. Discussion: The results of this study has been largely consistent with past findings of a relationship between PTSD symptoms in service members and higher levels of internalizing symptoms in children. The use of corporal punishment by service member parents partially accounted for this relationship. While military families are often found to be resilient, service member PTSD symptoms poses significant risk to family members including children. Military family access to mental health care during and after deployments continues to be of vital importance.