The Effects of War on Military Families: Diving Into the Impact

Updated September 21, 2021
Military Mission at twilight

Military families face many hurdles during their years of service to the country. Any time a family member has to be away for extended periods of time, it can cause negative stress on the family unit, but particularly so when the deployed family member is subject to potentially dangerous conditions. The effects of war on families are extensive and can impact the serving member as well as their kin.

Loneliness or Feeling "Forgotten"

Military families are subject to frequent moves, sometimes leaving spouses in a situation where there is no established support group of friends and family. Though most military installations offer support groups and other resources for family members left behind during a war deployment, loneliness is still a real possibility. A research article published for the College of Nursing, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh notes that wives, in particular, may feel "forgotten" when their husbands deploy. Having family and friends to turn to during times of deployment is essential in combatting feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Military mother kissing her daughter goodbye

Increased Stress for All Family Members

The acute stress of having a family member deployed during wartime is not limited to spouses; children and other family members worry about the deployed member's health and well-being while also trying to pick up the slack of having a family member gone. An article published for presentation at the 2011 American Counseling Association Conference and Exposition says that spouses left home during deployment can develop stress-related mental health issues including "anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and sleep disorders, to name a few."

Furthermore, a study conducted by the King's Centre for Military Health Research at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, & Neuroscience revealed that 7% of military partners met the criteria for clinical depression, compared to only 3% of the non-military population. The study went on to highlight that female partners of military personnel were twice as likely to engage in episodic binge drinking behavior as the general female population. These unhealthy coping mechanisms may be in part due to the stress that military partners feel during their partner's absence.

Children of the Deployed

There are currently some 1.76 million children belonging to military families. For children, even those who are very young, having a deployed parent can be stressful enough to merit intervention from a mental health professional, says an article published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. In fact, the article additionally asserts that a parent deploying to war may have lasting developmental impact on a young child, particularly if the child's trauma is not addressed and treated.

Sad boy talking to his military dad who is leaving to war

Wartime parental deployment can result in children experiencing negative changes in school performance, an increase in anger, withdrawal, disrespect, and sadness. Depression in children with active military parents on deployment is prevalent, affecting roughly one in four children of these particular families. One in five children with parents engaged in deployed war duty suffered from academic problems. 37% of this child population expressed concern that their parent would be harmed, or worse.

Parents of the Deployed

Blue Star Mothers of America, an organization that offers community and support to parents of service members, warns parents that having a deployed child can cause increased stress. This anxiety may even reach the point where the parent will have difficulty concentrating or completing tasks. Like spouses and children of active service members, the parents of military personnel should seek support and assistance from family, friends, community services, and military programs devised to help those coping with a child away on active duty.

Help Managing Stress

Mental Health America, a non-profit organization focused on mental health, offers tips for dealing with the stress related to having a loved one deployed, including:

  • Talking to someone about your feelings, whether that's a trusted friend or a mental health professional
  • Limiting your exposure to news coverage about the war
  • Taking care of your physical health and managing stress levels

Military OneSource will provide military dependents with authorizations for care for therapy when needed. The process is simple and confidential. It is one of the many organizations put into place to aid military families during times of need.

Financial Issues

Though service members typically earn additional pay while deployed for war in the form of hazardous duty pay, family separation pay, or tax-free income depending on location, the financial strain of the at-home spouse needing to stay home to care for children or other family members can have an impact on the family finances. Most military installations offer budgeting help during pre and post-deployment periods, helping families to avoid additional stress caused by financial problems resulting from the deployment.

Research published by the National Institutes of Health suggests that military members without financial strain may have an easier time recovering from a deployment to a war zone.

Reintegration Challenges

Contrary to what many people may think, the stress of deployment doesn't end the moment the military member returns home. Military families must recognize that reintegration can be difficult in spite of the happiness of the military member's return. Family roles must be reestablished as the family learns to function once again with the military member present.

Service members serving at wartime may additionally have to deal with the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), making it even more difficult to adjust to life back home. PTSD can be a potentially serious mental health issue and should be treated promptly and effectively. One study looked at some 60,000 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those service members, 13.5% of them screened positive for PTSD. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that families are negatively affected by a military member's PTSD, and therefore this is a family issue as opposed to something the service member should deal with on his or her own.

Soldier and his family at a psychotherapist during a session

Potential Positives

Though it is difficult to think positively about a family member heading off to war, potentially positive aspects can help deal with the stress of deployment:

  • Medals and awards won in wartime may help increase the likelihood of eventual promotion.
  • Spouses and children can learn important lessons about resilience.
  • Families of deployed members are often eligible for additional programs and benefits provided by military installations.
  • Installments of enlistment or reenlistment bonuses may be tax-free in a war zone.

Get Help

Myriad resources are available for military families trying to deal with having a service member deployed. The military community recognizes the potential stress involved and provides help when available.

The Effects of War on Military Families: Diving Into the Impact