Military Kids and Risky Behavior

We spend a great deal of time in our country talking about certain populations of kids who have special needs.  We measure things like drug use, violence, suicide, mental health issues, and learning disabilities.  One consistent population that tends to go off our radar as a group is our military children and teenagers.  Why is that?

Military kids have higher rates of risky behaviors but get little help 

Military Kids and Risky Behavior
(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg) http://

As a group, military kids have a lot of challenges and issues to overcome just due to the lifestyle profile and circumstances surrounding our military families. Here is a recent article in Forbes/Business written by Emily Willingham that raises many of the issues facing our military kids.

Being a military kid involves a life of known stressors and risks, everything from a constant fear of losing a parent to the frequent moves that mean leaving behind everything that’s familiar and having to start all over again … and again. Even just ending up in new places that sometimes aren’t as near relatives or as interesting as the old ones can be stressful—such as the time a family member of mine whom the military moved from Bangkok to … Killeen, TX.

Now results of a large study of California schoolchildren suggest that some stressors can worsen for these kids during wartime, which for the last decade-plus has been pretty much all the time. Unfortunately, the infrastructure to help children in these situations is fragile at best, where it exists at all.

Study first author Kathrine Sullivan and her colleagues compared data from March and April 2013 for 54,679 “military connected” California public schoolchildren and 634,034 of their peers who were not connected to the military. The students were in grade 7 or higher, and reflecting the population makeup of California and its public school students, more than half were listed as Latino. The study was published in August in JAMA Pediatrics.

The authors looked specifically at what they call “externalizing behaviors,” the kinds of behaviors we can see, like fighting, substance use or carrying weapons, and that are associated with threats to well-being and academic progress.

Their results for weapons-carrying were the most striking: Military-connected students had more than twice the odds of having brought a gun to school compared to their counterparts without a military connection. In fact, almost 1 in 5 of the military-connected children reported having done so.

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When I asked the authors what they thought might underlie this increased risk for weapons carrying, they said in an email that some factors could be “stressors related to war, frequent school transitions and low community support lead to military kids being bullied and joining risky peer groups.” Obviously, while two of those are out of the hands of the local community, the third factor is something that attentive and aware adults might be able to address—but they have to identify the military-connected kids first.

The authors also note that “weapon carrying in response to be being bullied could be a form of self-defense,” a possibility in keeping with their findings that military-connected kids also had increased risks of being threatened with a weapon or cyber-harassed or having rumors spread about them. Other research, the authors told me, indicates that children in general sometimes bring weapons to school for self-protection in response to bullying.

Military kids also were more likely to drink and smoke cigarettes or pot and to be victims of physical violence.

A Reuters story about the study said that one shortcoming was an absence of details about the socioeconomic status of the children.  Curious about whether or not socioeconomic status might play a role in some of these outcomes, I asked the authors about that factor. They said that of the approximately 4 million students from families serving in the military since 9/11, most are in public schools and come from across military grades, from enlistees to top brass. Their own analyses, they say, suggest that socioeconomic status isn’t likely to be much of a factor.

The authors note that their findings highlight “the invisibility of military and veteran children in public schools” and the lack of supports that are available “to address their unique needs.” One source of information and support that the authors pointed out is this set of Military Family Guides from Teachers College Press, which are currently (at this posting) available free of charge to military families.

This study builds an evidence base for what we might intuit about a disrupted, unstable childhood, but it also builds on previous evidence. Another study with some of the same authors and also evaluating a population of California schoolchildren found that these students were more likely to struggle with mental health problems, including suicidal ideation.

Most military-connected children do OK. I’ve got family members whose lives serve as anecdotal examples of that. But results like these suggest risk for many of these kids, risks that could be mitigated and addressed with the right detection processes and support services. As study author Ron Astor noted to me in an email, “Our other research studies also show positive school climate, overall supports, can make a difference in reducing the outcomes.”

Unfortunately, not even the military itself provides the framework for children who might need services. The University of Southern California School of Social Work, where most of the authors on the JAMA Pediatrics study have affiliations, offers some resources for families, educators and the students themselves (also linked above) to aid children’s transitions and give them some support. That’s a start, but it’s not enough.

No, it is not enough

And certainly those of us who are related to, or familiar with a military child or teenager, should be aware of some of the issues that are so prominent in their lives.  Whether we are seeing them in our schools, our homes, our neighborhoods or our communities, we should have a clearer understanding of the challenges that these children face each day.  I do hope we as a nation can give them the support they deserve.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network


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