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The detrimental effects of deployment and combat-related traumatic stress on U.S. military families during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to be documented. Increased posttraumatic stress symptoms and other mental health problems (e.g., depression, substance abuse) and physical and traumatic brain injuries are not uncommon. These injuries are associated with poor family functioning outcomes, including increased rates of intimate partner conflict (Gibbs, Clinton-Sherrod, & Johnson, 2012), child maltreatment (Rentz, et al., 2007), non-military spousal depression and anxiety (Eaton et al., 2008), and emotional and behavioral problems among military children (Chandra et al., 2010; Lester et al., 2011).

Although the majority of military families are resilient in the face of multiple stressors (Pietrzak, Johnson, Goldstein, Malley, & Southwick, 2009), the distress that service members and their spouses encounter as a result of repeated cycles of separation and combat-related traumatic stress may impair and/or disrupt parental functioning and parenting (Gewirtz & Davis, 2014).

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in particular, has been noted as a significant risk factor for family distress (see Galovski & Lyons, 2004 for a review). This is especially concerning because service members’ exposure to combat and the aftermath of combat (e.g., handling human remains) is prospectively associated with a twofold increase in risk for PTSD (Polusny et al., 2011), which often persists upon reintegration to civilian life (Smith et al., 2008). Furthermore, data show that partners of military members with PTSD are also at increased risk for a number of mental health problems (Eaton et al., 2008), which may also influence parenting behaviors.

Several studies have documented a link between military parents’ PTSD symptoms and aspects of parenting. Increases in PTSD symptoms were associated with poorer perceived parenting practices for male service members, a year after returning from deployment to Iraq (Gewirtz, Polusny, DeGarmo, Khaylis, & Erbes, 2010). PTSD symptoms were also associated with decreased parenting cooperation and communication among parenting dyads (Allen, Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2010), and were significantly correlated with parenting stress (Blow et al., 2013). A recent qualitative study found that military fathers described feelings of parenting stress and identified reconnecting with their children and co-parenting upon reintegration as challenges (Walsh et al 2014).

Although these findings suggest an association between PTSD and parenting, it still remains unclear through what mechanisms aspects of PTSD influence parenting and family relationships. Some evidence demonstrated that emotional numbing symptoms were significantly related to Vietnam War veterans’ perceived relationship quality with their children (Ruscio et al., 2002) and avoidance and hyperarousal symptoms were associated with female Vietnam War veterans’ parenting satisfaction (Berz, Taft, Watkins, & Monson, 2008).

Additionally, service members’ self-reported experiential avoidance has been associated with less observed positive engagement with partners and children and greater withdrawal and distress avoidance in interactions (Brockman et al., 2015, in press). It may be hypothesized that these symptoms increase emotional withdrawal and decrease the capacity to be psychologically present and available for positive interactions with family members, resulting in impaired parenting.

The resilience literature shows that effective, high quality parenting is one of the most critical protective factors for child wellbeing, particularly during times of stress. Understanding how PTSD symptoms resulting from combat exposure influence parenting practices is imperative.

As future studies continue to identify how symptoms of PTSD (e.g., experiential avoidance, dysphoria) influence parent-child and intimate partner interactions, interventions designed to promote positive outcomes among military families will be better equipped to target the specific mechanisms through which military parents’ distress resulting from traumatic stressors influences parenting.

About the Authors

Ashley A. Chesmore, MPH, MSEd, is a PhD student in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Her research focuses on ways to improve mental health outcomes among children through improved parenting and positive relationships with adult mentors and teachers.

Abigail H. Gewirtz, PhD, is the Lindahl Leadership Professor in the Department of Family Social Science and Institute of Child Development, and Director of the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health at the University of Minnesota. She is the PI of the ADAPT Study and a licensed clinical child psychologist. Her research examines the impact of traumatic events on children and families, the protective functions of parenting practices, and the adaptation and widespread implementation of effective prevention programs.


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