Deployment causes strong emotions for everyone in the family. It can be especially hard on teenagers, who are often experiencing turmoil of their own simply because of the physical and emotional changes of adolescence. But your support can go a long way toward helping your teenager deal with the difficulties of deployment. In fact, the deployment period can be a time of personal growth, as your teenager takes on added responsibilities and makes emotional adjustments.
As family members anticipate their loved one's departure, they are likely to experience anxiety about the future. The range of emotions your teenager feels may bring about a variety of behavior, including denial, emotional distance, restlessness and negativity. The following are some ways you can help:
- Have a family discussion about the deployment and focus on the positive. Make it clear how the deployment will affect each family member left at home. Your teen may need to take on more responsibility during the deployment. Explain that you are giving your teen with more responsibility, not just more chores. Certain topics may be important to your teenager, including:
- What will my responsibilities be?
- How will I get to after-school activities?
- Will we have enough money?
- Can I still drive the car?
- How will I talk to you while you're gone?
- What if I don't like the changes?
- What will happen to us if something happens to you?
- Encourage your teenager to share feelings with you. Even if you're busy, it's important for teenagers to know their concerns are being heard.
- Plan time for your teenager to spend alone with the deploying parent. Try scheduled events or just some relaxing time together. Let your teen suggest some activities.
- Swap keepsakes. Before leaving for a deployment, trade one or more sentimental objects with your teen, or consider putting together a deployment box for each other that contains several objects to ease the separation. These items could include pictures, notes, recordings, post cards or other small keepsakes.
- Develop a relationship with your teenager's school counselors and teachers. Let them know about the deployment so they can watch for signs that your teenager is struggling.
Deployment is a time of emotional ups and downs. With a parent absent for an extended period, children may feel lost, empty or abandoned. The following are some ways to help your teen cope during deployment:
- Make it easy for your teenager to communicate with the deployed parent. Email, cell phones, instant messaging or texting, and talking via video-chats (when available) provide immediate contact, and many teenagers are comfortable with these communication styles. Some parents have even found that playing online video games with their children is a fun and low-key way to stay in touch with their teenagers.
- Try to approach discussions from your teenager's perspective. Share control of the conversation by letting teenagers discuss the topics that are the most important to them. Allow some time for light chatter as well as serious subjects.
- Maintain structured routines at home. Teenagers, as well as younger children, gain comfort from a stable routine at home and at school. Encourage your teen to maintain usual involvement in activities and keep plans.
- Share information about the war as appropriate. Don't dwell on negative news or extensive TV coverage. Be aware of your teen's worry style to better understand how much information is the right amount to minimize anxiety.
- Suggest ways for teenagers to deal with emotional stress. These might include the following:
- Keeping a journal.
- Engaging in art activities.
- Writing stories or poetry.
- Relaxing by doing deep-breathing and muscle-relaxation exercises.
- Learning problem-solving strategies.
- Participating in small group discussions.
- Listening to music.
- Taking part in individual and group counseling when problems come up.
- Keep a list of resources available to your teenager. Include hotline numbers and ways to reach a counselor. Teens are more likely to use such resources if they are easy to find.
Deployment changes everyone, and it can take months to reintegrate the service member into the family. Here are some things that can help.
- Give your teenager time and space to readjust. Take time to discuss what's been going on in your teenager's life during the deployment. If you're the returning parent, try to listen in an open, nonjudgmental way.
- Take advantage of military support programs. Each service branch offers resources that help families make the homecoming transition smoother. This includes information, counselors through the Family Support Center and Military OneSource, the installation chaplain, family support groups and online support groups.
When a deployment is extended
An extended deployment creates hardship for families. From the moment you receive the news of the extended deployment, you may experience a flood of emotions. Experts agree that a deployment extension is often harder on families than it is on service members. During this difficult time, you may find it helpful to remind your teenager of the following:
- The emotions you are feeling are normal. There is no getting around the fact that a deployment extension brings feelings of stress. You may feel overwhelmed for days or even a few weeks until you have had time to adjust to the news.
- You are not alone. Military family life is a life of constant change. The more you talk with others in your situation, the easier this time will be and the less alone you will feel.
Seeking outside help
If your teenager continues to have trouble adjusting to the stress of deployment, don't hesitate to contact your physician or a mental health professional. Make the call promptly if any of the following behavior continues for more than two weeks:
- Inability to resume normal classroom assignments and activities.
- High levels of emotional response, such as continued crying and intense sadness.
- Depression or appearing withdrawn and non-communicative.
- Expression of violent or depressed feelings in "dark" drawings or writings.
- Significant weight loss or gain.
- Lack of attention to personal appearance.
Get help immediately if your child intentionally hurts or cuts him- or herself, appears at risk of hurting others or expresses suicidal thoughts.