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Teens & Deployment: What to Expect and How to Help

Teen with Guitar

U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue/Released

Teens may experience a range of emotions as they prepare for a loved one’s deployment. For example, teens may feel anxious, proud, sad or even confused about their parent’s upcoming deployment.

With your teen experiencing many physical, emotional and social changes during this time of their life, help maintain stability in your family by taking proactive steps to prepare him or her before you leave. Prepare your teen for your departure by understanding his or her reactions, offering support and helping to establish healthy coping skills and behaviors. These steps can help strengthen your family’s resilience so they can successfully adjust throughout each stage of deployment.

What You Can Do Before Deployment

Include your teen in family pre-deployment conversations. This can help them prepare for your departure and also give your teen a sense of participation in family decisions. Here are some helpful pre-deployment tips:1

  • Discuss where you will be sent if possible and share the positive attributes of the type of work you will be doing (e.g., helping children, fighting for the freedom of others, etc.).
    • Why: Sharing this kind of information with your teen can create positive associations with your work and help him or her understand your deployment better.
  • Discuss new roles and responsibilities your teen can expect to assume while you are away.
    • Why: Preparing your teen to assume new roles can be an effective way to channel anxieties into helpful behavior, and encourage him or her to support the family while you’re away. However, keep in mind how much your teen is already undertaking (e.g., homework, chores, after school job, etc.) and try not to increase the workload too much, allowing time for rest and relaxation as well.
  • Talk with your teen about family members (e.g., parent, step-parent, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.) who will take on new roles in his or her life while you are away.
    • Why: Managing your teen’s expectations about who will be in charge while you’re gone can make the transition smoother for caregivers and reinforce with your teen that he or she should listen to others in authority during your absence.
  • Spend quality time together.
    • Why: Spending quality time as a family before your deployment will provide your teen with some recent, positive experiences to reflect on while you are gone.
  • Establish open lines of communication and invite your teen to share his or her feelings.
    • Why: Encouraging your teen to talk about his or her reactions to your deployment will put you and your teen’s caregiver in a better position to comfort him or her. Your teen may not be able to make sense of his or her feelings, but by establishing a safe and open environment you can talk through these issues while being supportive and encouraging.

What Your Family Can Do During Deployment

Your teen may go through some emotional and behavioral changes after you deploy. The parent at home, and other caregivers should pay attention to the signs listed below to determine if their teen is responding to deployment in an unhealthy way. If any of the following behaviors continue for more than two weeks, it’s important that your family seeks care from a health professional:1

  • Rapidly changing emotions
  • Acting overly strong, mature or disinterested
  • Increased discipline problems at home and / or at school
  • Difficulty concentrating at school
  • Changes in sleep, diet or weight
  • Signs of depression such as isolation, feeling misunderstood or a negative outlook

If your teen intentionally hurts himself / herself, appears at risk of hurting others or expresses suicidal ideation, seek help immediately.1

Often, teens will initially cope with stress by keeping their feelings to themselves. It’s important for caregivers to be there for your teen when they need someone to talk to. Read the National Military Family Association’s “10 Things Military Teens Want You To Know” [PDF 900KB] to gain insight into some common ways teens can cope, and how friends, family and their school can help support your teen.

In addition, caregivers should consider using some helpful tactics to encourage your teen to adopt healthy behaviors while you are deployed. For example, caregivers can:1,2

  • Teach teens about the deployment cycle and the emotions they may feel as a result, such as depression, anger and anxiety.
  • Maintain routines to keep a sense of stability at home, especially in the first few months after deployment begins.
  • Make sure your teen eats healthy, gets enough rest and exercises regularly. Following healthy habits will help reduce stress that your teen may experience as a result of your deployment.
  • Encourage your teen to write letters, send cards and make phone calls to you while you are deployed.
  • Create a scrapbook, photo album (e.g., online or hard-copy) or journal of missed events with your teen to present to you when you return home.
  • Open the lines of communication to make sure that your teen has the opportunity to express his or her feelings about your deployment.
  • Carve out one-on-one time without pressuring your teen to talk about the deployment.
  • Encourage your teen to maintain a healthy balance between time at home and time with friends, while also providing an appropriate level of space and privacy.
  • Enroll your teen in a summer camp for military youth so they can share experiences with peers on coping with a parent’s deployment.

What You Can Do After Deployment

After you return from deployment, you can take some proactive steps to reconnect with your teenager. It is important that you understand common behaviors exhibited by teens and the common reasons why your teen may be acting in such ways. Doing so will enable you to directly address his or her feelings about your deployment and begin reconnecting as a family. Read the Real Warriors Campaign article “How to Reconnect with Your Teen After a Deployment” for some helpful guidance on bonding with your teen after a long time away from home.

Additional Resources

Sources

1Teenagers and Deployment,” Military OneSource. Last accessed March 31, 2014.
2 “Frequently Asked Questions: Military Families.” Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. Published July 2011.

Last Reviewed: 03/07/14
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