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How to Reconnect with Your Teen After Deployment

Soldier Homecoming

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Anthony Sanchelli/Released

As deployments come to an end, service members are often excited about coming home and seeing their families. But after the initial celebrations pass, readjusting to family life and reconnecting with teenagers can be challenging. Although deployments can be difficult on teenagers – who are already undergoing many changes – you can make your homecoming easier by following a few simple guidelines. Understanding what behaviors and reactions to expect from your teenager when you return home from a deployment will help you reconnect with your teen and establish a strong relationship after a long time apart.

Common Behaviors to Expect from Your Teenager

Between the ages of 12 – 18, tweens and teens experience a number of physical, emotional and social changes: They go through growth spurts, hit puberty, and may show a desire for increased independence as their friends play an increasing role in their social lives. Everyone reacts differently during their teenage years and will react differently to a returning parent. Pay attention to the following common behaviors your teenager may display after you return home from deployment to help you understand how to respond in a loving and supportive way:

  • Hesitancy to show affection or hug you immediately
  • Testing limits or rebelling against parental authority
  • Acting disengaged, moody, critical or angry
  • Withdrawing from the family
  • Showing preference for the parent who did not deploy
  • Acting out or engaging in attention-seeking behavior
  • Clinging to family or the deployed parent

Common Reasons for Your Teenager’s Behavior

Teenagers may exhibit these behaviors because they:

  • Feel like they do not know you any more or that you are different since deploying
  • Feel like they grew up while you were away and believe it will take you time to get to know them again
  • Assumed more responsibilities during your deployment and are reluctant to give up their independence
  • Fear that you will deploy again and are afraid to get close too quickly
  • Feel resentful toward the returning parent for leaving

Your teenager is probably not the only one who has changed while you were deployed; it is likely that you have had experiences that changed you as well. Remember that with time and effort you and your teen can get to know each other again. Follow the guidelines below to help get back on track to having a strong and healthy relationship with your teen:

Show Your Teenager that You Care

  • Acknowledge you were gone. Let your teenager know that you were sad to miss important events in his or her life. Look through pictures to share memories that happened while you were deployed.
  • Ask about their life. Ask questions about the events you missed – including school, games, prom and extracurricular activities – so you can catch up on the important events that happened while you were gone.
  • Get to know their friends. Your teen’s social network likely plays a big part in his or her life; interact with your teen on this important subject and get to know who his or her friends are. 
  • Listen to their feelings. Establish open lines of communication by actively listening to your teenager’s feelings or concerns and answering his or her questions as best you can. This will validate your teen’s feelings and make him or her feel more comfortable sharing next time.

Spend Quality Time Together

  • Schedule family time. Set aside time each day to spend one-on-one with your teenager, even if it’s only to quickly discuss his or her day.
  • Participate in their hobbies. Bond with your teenager by participating in activities that he or she enjoys, such as playing video games, shopping, watching movies or attending sporting events together.
  • Attend their events. Support your teenager’s interests by regularly attending his or her school activities, games, recitals and events.
  • Plan a family vacation. Whether it’s a week at the beach or an overnight camping trip, a vacation can allow your family to reconnect in a relaxed setting. Programs such as Operation Purple offer retreats for military families at national parks around the country.

Talk with Your Teenager about Your Deployment

  • Initiate the conversation. Be proactive and start the conversation with your teenager. He or she probably has a number of questions and may be unsure how to ask them.
  • Keep the discussion age appropriate. Use a level of detail that is appropriate for your teenager and words that he or she can easily understand.
  • Emphasize the positive. Share positive stories with your teenager including examples of rebuilding a community, working with children or keeping people safe.
  • Share your feelings. Let your teenager know how deploying and being away from the family made you feel.
  • Check out our partners resources. Many Real Warriors Campaign partners offer valuable resources to help parents reconnect. For starters, check out the National Military Family Association’s toolkit called “10 Things Your Military Teen Wants you to Know.” [PDF 896 KB]

By promoting open communication you can develop a stronger relationship with your teenager and family. Remember that it will likely take time to develop a new routine as a family and that each teenager will react differently to a returning parent. For additional suggestions and guidance don’t hesitate to reach out for help from one of the following resources:

  • Contact the Psychological Health Resource Center at 1-866-966-1020 to get the information you need from a licensed health resource consultant. It’s free, it’s confidential and you- or your teen- can call or chat 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Reach out to Military & Family Life Consultants who can provide free, non-medical counseling to service members and their families. Military & Family Life Consultants work with military personnel free-of-charge, and can be accessed through the following offices: Army Community Services, Marine Corps Community Services, Navy Fleet and Family Support Centers and Airman and Family Readiness Centers. Guard and Reserve members who are not located near military installations, call 1-888-755-9355 to locate a consultant near you.
  • Every service member and veteran should know that they and their families can feel comfortable reaching out to their units and chain of command for support as well.
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