Teenagers are especially impacted by the deployment of a parent, according to military psychologists and pediatricians. Deployments cause stress for every family member, but teens experience added anxiety because of the unique challenges of their age. Teens who must cope with a parent's absence may experience depression, fear and anger.
"Today, an entire generation of military youth are affected by the absence of one or both parents," said Maj. Keith Lemmon, a physician who specializes in pediatrics and adolescent medicine. "It is crucial to help these teens during the stresses of deployment, through preventative psychoeducation," said Dr. Lemmon, who also is a faculty member at Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis in Washington state.
Psychoeducation consists of therapy or coping skills that are offered either to the individual or in combination with the family.
Teens cope with fear of their parents dying or being injured and with frustration over having to assume more home responsibilities and having less time for friends and other activities. They also may misdirect anger to the parent who remains with them at home.
Gloria Jarvis of Fort Hood, Texas, noted the impact of deployment on her family when her husband returned from his second tour in Iraq in January 2008. "It has been a difficult adjustment for our son," Mrs. Jarvis said in an interview. "Kyle had to take on so many more responsibilities with his younger brothers and sister while his dad was deployed. He now has to learn how to be a child again."
Mrs. Jarvis said Kyle, who is now 15, seemed to be "resentful of his father" when he returned from an 18-month deployment to Iraq.
Kyle "was only 12 when his dad deployed," Mrs. Jarvis said. "Taking on so much responsibility caused him to separate from the rest of us; it was as if he was just going through the motions - not really feeling anything. His dad missed so much of Kyle growing into a young man. We are not sure if he will ever be able to get back to being just a normal teenager."
Preparing for deployment can cause emotional confusion, experts say. When a mother or father is absent for extensive periods, teenagers might experience feelings of being lost, empty or left behind. In some cases, deployments can be even harder on the family than on the service member.
"Since my dad left, I stay separate from the rest of the family. I try to keep to myself because my mom and sister are always crying and stuff," said Shawn Necaise, 16, of Purvis, Miss. Shawn said he doesn't show any emotions because he has "to be the strong one."
"I know my dad is counting on me to mow the lawn and that sort [of thing]," Shawn said. "I don't want to let him down while he is away on a job for America."
When a mother or father deploys, teens should be encouraged to spend time with friends and retain a sense of normalcy, experts say. It can be helpful to encourage conversations about deployment. If a teen is hesitant to talk about his or her feelings, parents can suggest that the teen write thoughts and feelings in a journal. If a parent becomes worried about the teen's change in behavior, he or she should let the teen know the parent understands those feelings.
"My teacher told me I should start keeping a journal while my dad is gone," Shawn said. "I told my baby sister about it, and I think it has helped her out some."
As family members anticipate their loved one's departure, they are likely to experience anxiety about the future, military psychologists say. Fear of the unknown can lead to feelings of helplessness, anger and sometimes guilt. While stress is a typical part of adolescence, chronic stress caused by deployment can lead to negative behavior or emotional problems. If a parent is concerned about a teenager's emotional welfare, the parent is advised to seek help immediately from a professional such as a pediatrician or a counselor. Military OneSource can help parents find a local counselor and provide additional resources and information.
cSusan Oliver Nelson is a writer living in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. She is an Army spouse.