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In the USA, 43% of those serving in the military are parents; among them, they have more than 1 million school aged children. Because long-term separations of parents from their children are expected to negatively affect children’s functioning, researchers have explored this possibility in the military context. The research has substantiated the concerns: Children of deployed parents have greater emotional and academic difficulties, more depression, more friendship problems, more disruptive behaviour, more withdrawal, less kindness to others, more proneness to binge drinking, and greater likelihood of thinking about and/or of attempting suicide.
Researchers, led by Professor Sarah Friedman at the George Washington University thought that long-distance communication between the deployed parents and their children might help children’s functioning. Therefore they studied the amount and the quality of such communication and the extent these features of communication are related to children’s wellbeing. Because they wanted to get information from the children themselves, they focused on children who were old enough to respond to their online surveys.
They asked 75 11- to 18-year-olds about the frequency and the nature of the communication with their deployed parents and also about how well they were functioning and how they felt following communications with the deployed parent. They asked the parent or caregiver at home about the adolescent’s functioning, behaviour problems and feelings following communication with the deployed parent.
They researchers asked about all kinds of communication: phone, email, social media, text, video chat, photo sharing and letters. Quality of communication was assessed with questions about two kinds communication when the parent and child were conversing at the same time: on the one hand, positive, supportive, and listening; on the other, controlling and dominant. The young people answered questions like “How often did your parent ask you about what was happening in school?” “How often did your parent tell you he/she can’t wait to see you again?” “How often did your parent tell you that you need to try harder / be nicer / be less upset?”
The young people were also asked about their health and functioning (e.g., “Have you felt fit and well?” “Have you felt lonely?” “Have you had fun with your friends?) and about how unhappy or happy they were when a communication with the deployed parent ended. The children’s at-home parent or caregiver answered the same questions, as well as questions about the children’s problem behaviour (e.g., “Does he/she have sudden changes in moods?” “Is he/she cruel or mean to others?” “Is he/she disobedient at home?”)
The researchers found great variation in the quantity and quality of communications reported by the young people. On average, though, children and deployed parents communicated more than 10 times a week, with an average duration of 9.6 minutes. Young people reported positive communication most of the time and controlling communication only sometimes.
The research team found that the quantity of communication was not statistically related to the young people’s functioning, but better quality communication (that is, positive communication) was related to better child functioning and more positive emotions, as reported by the young person, and also more sadness at the end of the communications. The at-home caregivers also reported higher functioning and more positive feelings on the part of young people who experienced positive communication with the deployed parent—and more child behaviour problems when the deployed parent was more controlling.
Friedman SL, Sigelman CK, Rohrbeck CA & del Rio-Gonzalez AM (2016), Quantity and quality of communication during parental deployment: Links to adolescents’ functioning, Applied Developmental Science