New Study Examines Impact of Military Deployment on Families

Seeking Civilian and Military Families to Measure Psychological and Biological Markers of Stress

The global war on terror may be winding down as U.S. troops pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq and return home, but suicide rates of U.S. service members reached an all-time high last year, a symptom of much bigger problems for military families who experience deployment, according to Candice Alfano, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Houston (UH).

“During the global war on terror, deployments have been longer and more frequent than any other war in U.S. history,” said Alfano. “Some families, some kids, and some marriages have really suffered.”

Alfano serves as co-principal investigator for a three-year, $2.7 million dollar grant funded by the U.S. Department of Defense titled “When Parents Go to War: Psychosocial Adjustments Among the Families of Deployed Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom.” A multisite grant (one grant, multiple locations) in Florida, Hawaii and Texas, her co-principal investigators are professors Deborah C. Beidel at the University of Central Florida and Charmaine Higa-McMillan at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.  The primary goal of the project is to examine how deployment impacts children and families in order to determine the types of programs and resources that would be most helpful for them.

“Unlike previous research studies, we plan to do more than have families just complete some questionnaires. In addition to comprehensive interviews, we’ll be measuring children’s salivary cortisol levels (a hormone linked to stress) and sleep,” said Alfano, who also serves as director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center for Kids (SACK) at UH.  “Biological measures are highly sensitive to periods of stress, more so than a questionnaire. Self-reports are also subject to a range of biases, whereas cortisol and sleep are objective. Children in our study will wear an actigraph, similar to a wrist watch, which allows us to measure sleep-wake patterns. We think this is particularly important since sleep is usually the place where stress first rears its head.”

Across all three sites, a total of 450 civilian and military families with at least one child (7 to 17 years of age) are being recruited. There are four types of families who can participate: military families (any service branch) with a deployed parent; military families without a currently deployed parent; civilian families with only one parent at home due to separation or divorce; and civilian families with both parents or caregivers at home.

Alfano and her collaborators hope that results from the study will advance current knowledge of how military deployment affects children and families. One of the biggest limitations of existing research is that it has failed to include adequate comparison control groups.  Children with a deployed parent have either been examined in isolation or compared exclusively to children from military families without a deployed parent. “In our study, we are examining two types of military families as well as two types of civilian families to better determine how military-related separation, specifically, impact children and families,” Alfano said.

Participating families will receive compensation for their time and efforts, which will include one in-person appointment as well as tracking of children’s sleep and collection of saliva at home for one week. Families need to have at least one child between the ages of 7 to 17 years in order to participate.

For more information, call 713-743-3400 or visit 

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About the Sleep and Anxiety Center for Kids (SACK)

The Sleep and Anxiety Center for Kids (SACK) at the University of Houston (UH) offers free clinical services to children of active-duty, reservist and veteran service members. Free workshops focused on improving sleep are also offered periodically for service members. For more information about available research opportunities and/or clinical services at SACK, please call 713-743-3400 or visit the SACK website,

About the University of Houston

The University of Houston is a Carnegie-designated Tier One public research university recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the nation’s best colleges for undergraduate education. UH serves the globally competitive Houston and Gulf Coast Region by providing world-class faculty, experiential learning and strategic industry partnerships. Located in the nation’s fourth-largest city, UH serves more than 40,700 students in the most ethnically and culturally diverse region in the country. For more information about UH, visit the university’s newsroom at