Children in military families are more likely than those with civilian parents to use alcohol and recreational drugs, carry weapons and be victims of harassment and physical violence, a new study has found.
The analysis was based on a 2013 survey from secondary school students in every California county. Of 688,713 children included in the data, 54,679 had a parent or caretaker in the military.
The results fall in line with previous work showing that children from military families are at higher risk of suicide and depression.
"Our working hypothesis is that many of the increases in adverse outcomes that we observed in this study, and have been observed consistently in other studies as well, are due to increased stressors faced by military families during wartime," Kathrine Sullivan, the lead author and a doctoral student at the USC School of Social Work, said in an email.
Researchers could not rule out other factors, however. The survey did not collect data about family income, parental education levels or household gun ownership that might help explain some of the differences between military and civilian families.
The study, published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, included 7th-, 9th- and 11th-graders from nearly every school district across California. Among the findings:
10.3% of military children indicated that they had carried a gun in the previous year, more than double the rate for other students.
11.9% had used cocaine, crack, methamphetamines, LSD or inhalants, versus 7.3% for nonmilitary children.
13.8% said they had been threatened with a weapon, versus 7.5% for nonmilitary children.
Overall rates of fighting and of being the subject of rumors, sexual jokes and online attacks were much higher for military children, the study found.
The problems for military kids appeared to be getting worse, based on a comparison with data collected from a smaller sample of California students in 2011.
The rates of substance use, victimization and weapons-carrying increased significantly for children in military families, but remained stable for those in civilian families.
One caveat is that the military children in the 2011 survey were likely receiving more social support, since they were clustered around military bases, the researchers said.
The researchers said their findings help build a strong case that communities should pay special attention to military children.
"Resources are sorely needed, particularly in public schools," Sullivan said. "Being able to identify these youth and marshal resources to support them is critical."
With fewer than 1% of U.S. adults serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, military families are often in the extreme minority. Most school districts make no effort to identify military children.
Los Angeles Unified School District recently became one of the first large districts in the country to do so, collecting veteran status on enrollment forms and emergency cards.