Military Families, Military Teens: Unique Families, Unique Challenges

The 21st century news cycle keeps our attention piqued all day every day. Scandals pop up and disappear before our eyes. Issues come and issues go. During this incessant media rollercoaster, regular citizens of the U.S. could not be blamed for missing the fact that we’re living through a period in history that our children’s children will read about years from now. At this moment, our country is involved in the two longest wars in our history at the same time: the war in Afghanistan and the war Iraq. U.S. soldiers have been in harm’s way in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003.

This year, a child born after the war in Afghanistan began will be eligible to enlist and serve in the same war as their parents. That’s never happened before – a full generation of war – but it doesn’t get headlines.

It should, because it has very real repercussions on the mental health of our military families and their children.

Military Families and Wartime Deployments

Military families hold an exceptional place in our culture. They’re part of our social fabric, yet they form a specialized community with distinct characteristics. They share a set of circumstances that both challenge and strengthen parents and children. Job reassignments mean frequent transitions. Therefore, military children change schools and communities far more than the children of non-military families. Consequently, they must make new friends and adapt to new schools, often in new states and sometimes in new countries with unfamiliar languages and customs. Caregiving parents navigate similar changes, and with each move, strive to create a new community and establish a new normal for their children. In a 2013 article “How Wartime Military Service Affects Military Families” authors Patricia Lester and Lieutenant Colonel Eric Flake (USAF) describe the experience of military families this way:

“These transitions may be rewarding, with opportunities for growth and adventure. But they may also be disruptive, with changes in routines and support networks for children and adults alike.”

Add to these challenges the fact mentioned above – we’re currently in the midst of two generation-long wars – and we remember that our current population of military families face the constant specter of overseas deployment to a combat zone. To say this adds to typical family stress would be a gross understatement. Typically, military families develop a core resiliency that sets them apart. However, they’re also vulnerable to a host psychological and emotional effects as a result of overseas deployment. To give this conversation some context, it’s helpful to understand the kind of numbers we’re talking about.

Military Deployments Since 2001

  • Over 2.5 million soldiers deployed overseas
    • Deployments of up to 18 months
    • Many with multiple deployments
  • 60% are married
  • 44% have children
  • 25% have adolescent children

That means over two million children in the U.S. have experienced the overseas deployment of a parent. In addition, of these two million children, half a million are – or were at the time of deployment – adolescents. These figures include active duty soldiers and National Guard members/reservists called to active duty. The children of these soldiers are especially susceptible to the emotional and psychological effects of their parent’s time spent overseas.

Here’s how Lester and Flake describe the situation:

“…children have had to manage the cumulative stress of separation in the context of danger. Children have said goodbye with the pervasive worry that their mother or father might return injured, or not return at all. Multiple deployments mean that military children may experience this type of separation many times, from infancy to adolescence…Deployment and its dangers can threaten children’s sense of security in their primary caregiving relationships, a disruption that may not be readily resolve even after the parent returns home.”

Overseas Deployment: The Effect on Children

We’ll briefly discuss the effect of deployment on younger children. Then, we’ll focus on teens. Finally, we’ll share information about how to support teens before, during, and after deployment. But first, some statistics on how overseas deployment of parents affects children in general.

Of children with deployed parents:

  • 56% have sleep issues
  • 33% worry excessively about their parents
  • 25% have depressive symptoms
  • 20% cope poorly with separation
  • 20% have academic problems

That’s they lay of the land. And while most military children and families cope well with deployment separation, a significant proportion experience psychological and emotional challenges.

Now, to the age-specific issues.

Preschool Children

Upon the deployment of a parent, these children will often experience anger, guilt, or confusion. These emotions may manifest as:

  • Clinginess
  • Attention-seeking and/or attention demanding
  • Aggression
  • Irritability
  • Inconsolability
  • Regression: thumb-sucking, etc.

School Age Children

These children often experience the same anger, guilt, and confusion felt by the younger children. Additionally, they may worry more and feel sad more than younger kids. Their emotions may manifest as:

  • Behavioral problems (acting out)
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in sleep and eating patterns
  • Physical complaints: headaches, stomach aches, pain unrelated to known or visible injury

Adolescents

Adolescents experience similar emotions to their younger counterparts. Their guilt and fear appear more often as anger, sadness, depression, and anxiety. These emotions may manifest as:

  • More pronounced acting out/behavioral issues
  • School and academic problems
  • Apathy, withdrawal, denial, self-isolation
  • Gravitating towards friends over family
  • Attempting to take charge, or play the adult in the family

Due to their advanced level of maturity and ability to grasp the full implications of the situation, adolescents can feel the pain of deployment more acutely than their younger siblings. But due to their lack of life experience, coping skills, and maturity, they’re particularly vulnerable to emotional or mood disorders.

Parent Deployment: Consequences Specific to Adolescents

In an article published in The Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers found that adolescents whose parents were deployed in war time are at risk of several significant mental health challenges, such as low self-esteem, low levels of well-being, and depression.

The paper states:

“The findings in this study suggest that military-connected adolescents have much higher rates of feeling sad or hopeless than found in other national studies … In our study, 33.7% of adolescents with a parent and 35.3% with a sibling in the military reported feeling sad or hopeless for more than 2 weeks in the past 12 months.”

The findings of this study go further to say that not only are the children of military families more at-risk for depressive mood and low self-esteem, they’re also at greater risk for suicidal ideation. Because of these serious consequences, it’s important for parents to understand how to help adolescents cope with the stress of deployment. In the clinical report “Health and Mental Health Needs of Children in US Military Families” published in The Journal of American Pediatrics, experts on pediatric mental health in the military context offer a list of practical suggestions for families, teachers, and anyone involved in the life of a military teen. These tips can be implemented before, during, and after the deployment of a parent.

How To Help Military Teens Whose Parents Are Deployed

1. Talk About It

The conversations might be tough, but adolescents are old enough to handle them. Talk openly and honestly about the risks and consequences of war.

2. Maintain Contact

Whenever possible, help adolescents maintain consistent contact with the deployed parent. Don’t skip Skype of Facetime sessions. They help more than teenagers will admit.

3. The Basics

Make sure all the fundamentals of health and well-being are covered. Teens need healthy food, regular sleep, regular exercise, and plenty of positive social contact to stay happy and balanced.

4. The Extras: Sport and Hobbies

Keep teenagers involved in extracurricular activities. They need to stay active and focused outside of school hours. At this point in their lives more than ever, teenagers need physical and emotional outlets for the rollercoaster of emotions they experience.

5. Media Coverage

Sequestering a teen from the news is probably impossible. It’s a good idea to limit exposure to media coverage, though. Headlines sensationalize events, and what teens need is rational guidance and advice, not headlines designed to trigger base emotions.

6. Routines

Keep the daily, weekly, and monthly schedule as regular as possible. On the surface, many teens chafe against routine, but parents and teachers know a solid and consistent daily schedule keeps teens grounded and can make the difference between feeling safe and feeling anxious – which can lead to acting out or experimenting with risky behavior.

7. Consistent Rules, Consequences, and Discipline

Like the schedule, the ins and outs of the family should stay as consistent as possible. Family rules should not change because one parent is deployed, and neither should curfews, screen time allowed, academic expectations, or the consequences of breaking family rules.

8. Make Time

If possible, make special time to talk to teens about what’s going on in their lives. If they have younger siblings, try to carve out some dedicated parent-teen time, where issues can be discussed (if necessary) on a more mature level than the way they’re discussed around/with the children.

9. Patience, Calm, and Understanding

Know that teens may be angry, irritable, and moody when a parent deploys. They may isolate from parents and friends. Give them space when they need it. Not too much, though, since what they really need is for parents and adults to engage. If they act out, seek to understand the root cause by leaning in. Encourage dialogue, and don’t be afraid of offering extra emotional support or physical affection.

Seeking Help For Troubled Military Teens

Sometimes teens need more help than what we suggest above. Remember: during deployment, they fear for the safety of their mom or dad. That’s no small thing. Parents of military teens should watch for the following warning signs:

  1. Significant behavioral changes such aggression, isolation, irritability
  2. Decrease in academic performance
  3. Increase in discipline problems at school
  4. Increased or sustained negativity that reassurance and positive support does not help
  5. Behavioral changes that continue or become more extreme for up to three months after deployment

If these signs appear, it may be time to consider seeking professional help. Also, if emotional conditions such as sadness, depressed mood, or anxiety accompany these signs and persist every day for more than two weeks, then we strongly encourage seeking professional help. All these symptoms are treatable and manageable, but treatment and management may be beyond the skill and expertise of the at-home parent, who, lest we forget, is also under the stress of deployment.

Where to Find Help

Military families can find help specifically tailored to meet their mental, emotional, and psychological needs through the following websites:

The National Military Families Association

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

The National Alliance on Mental Illness: Veterans and Active Duty Page

NAMI Homefront

NAMI Family to Family

Give an Hour

Each of these organizations offer resources for military families seeking help with mental health issues resulting from the overseas deployment of family members. Perhaps the most valuable for military families and returning service members is Give an Hour. It’s a nationwide network of mental health providers who volunteer their services to veterans and their families. There’s no hassle, no waiting time and, according to their website, no paperwork at all. For families accustomed to navigating the bureaucracies associated with healthcare for active duty military or veterans, their services may be, quite literally, a welcome relief.