Five different locations, but at each one the scene is similar. A group of summer campers bound into the room, about to participate in a focus group. Some seem more comfortable than others. While there might be a difference in gender and ages, they all have one important thing in common — at least one parent is currently deployed.
Before the teens, ages 12 to 18, are invited to sit down on couches arranged in an informal circle for the ensuing discussion, focus-group facilitators encourage the teens to add their personal thoughts to what they describe as the graffiti wall. Large paper hangings on the walls around the room pose open-ended sentences like,
“The worst thing about having a parent deployed is ...”
“When I first found out that my parent was being deployed I ...”
“What worries me the most is ...”
“What worries me the least is ...” and others.
In each of the focus groups, the thoughts the teens put in the blanks prove to be a good starting point for discussion.
Understanding how a parent’s deployment affects the teen years is the focal point of research conducted by Angela Huebner, associate professor of human development at Virginia Tech's National Capital Region, and Jay A. Mancini, professor of human development at the Blacksburg campus.
Through a grant funded by the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University and supported by the Department of Defense, the research team conducted focus groups comprised of 102 youth attending summer camps in Hawaii, Washington, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia, all sponsored by the National Military Family Association. In all but one of the cases, the deployed parent was the father.
The war in Iraq and the global war on terrorism have changed the course of military service for active duty National Guard and Reserve members. Today, the context of military service includes a higher operation tempo, increased deployments, relocations, and family separations. In short, military families are facing more stressors than ever before. About 39 percent (more than 469,999) of the children of deployed parents are age 1 and under, 33 percent (more than 400,000) are between the ages of 6 and 11, and about 25 percent (more than 300,000) are between the ages of 12 and 18.
This Virginia Tech study is the first of its kind to include direct responses from adolescents 12 to 18 years of age. Prior studies on this topic have centered on younger children, with information garnered from parents and teachers rather than from the children themselves.
The focus groups examined how life changes for teens when a parent is deployed. Findings suggest there are several overriding themes: changes in behaviors, changes in family relationships, changes in routines and responsibilities, the use of formal and informal support networks, communication with the deployed parent, and issues that arise when the deployed member returns home.
Changes in behavior
According to Huebner, how parents prepared their children for the deployment has a significant effect on how well teens seem to be able to cope with the separation. “Those teens whose parents had carefully prepared them for the separation by discussing where the service member was being sent, what new responsibilities the teens would need to shoulder while the deployed parent was away, and even more important, how much both parents love them, seemed to be coping the best during the period of deployment,” says Huebner.
“Conversely, teens whose parents simply left home with very little or virtually no discussion seemed to be coping less effectively,” she says.
The study found that behavioral changes were the norm. Although some behavior changes were for the better, others were for the worse. For example, when discussing performance at school, many teens said they were doing worse and attributed falling grades to being distracted with worry about their deployed parent. Others said they worked harder to improve their grades because they didn’t want dad to be disappointed or have to spend time worrying about them while he was gone.
Hiding emotions was a behavior change cited by many in the focus groups. The teens said they often hid their real feelings in an effort to protect other family members. “They seemed to think that they needed to be the strong one — especially when the remaining parent (usually mom) was emotional,” says Huebner.
One 17-year-old boy said, “When my dad left, I stayed separate from the family. I would really keep to myself. …my mom and my sister were constantly crying and stuff so I was always trying to comfort them. And I couldn’t show any emotion … because I had to be the strong one.”
To avoid having to deal with worry, another teen said he would go to the gym and lift weights until he was so tired he would just go home and fall asleep.
Another focus group participant, a 13-year-old girl, said she wouldn’t discuss her feelings with her family “because they just make it worse.”
Teens also reported that despite efforts to hold in their emotions, they often “lashed out” at others for things that usually wouldn’t upset them. According to Mancini, “Many of the teens talked about being on edge with their emotions. They described themselves as easily angered, snappy, and short-tempered.”
Changes in family relationships
Changes in the relationship with the parent who remained at home were also evident among the groups. “Many of the teens described their parent as ‘stressed out,’” says Mancini. “They attributed their mom’s increased stress to her taking on more responsibilities, having concerns over money, and worrying more about dad.”
“…my mom acts different, too, when my dad’s gone. It’s like she’s not her normal self,” said one 14-year-old boy. “She’s kind of like stressed out and stuff. And her [being] stressed out affects me, too …”
A few focus group participants reported that they had to leave home and go to live with other family members because mom was either working and/or unable to cope with the situation. “Younger boys in the group said they missed their dads most as a playmate,” says Huebner, “someone who would go out, run around, and play ball with them, for example.”
In some instances, though certainly not all, the experience of having a parent deployed served as a bond, drawing siblings closer together.
Change in discipline was another frequently mentioned factor. Depending on the family, mom’s attitude toward discipline became more flexible without dad around, or more strict.
While some teens said that their at-home parent was less available due to other responsibilities and concerns, several of the teens mentioned that their relationship with mom actually improved because they were able to spend more time together. This seemed especially prevalent in cases where there were stepfathers who were deployed.
Changes in routines and responsibilities
“…when he’s not there, everything is looser,” said one 13-year-old girl. “Like you know, I’ll do my homework maybe after I eat dinner and stuff. And like maybe I’ll just do things in a little different order when I’m around my mom.”
The focus groups found that there were a number of changes in routines and responsibilities. With dad away, some routines and rituals – dinner for example – became more lax or casual.
The results of the focus groups showed that a number of youth take on many important responsibilities when a parent is deployed. Some teens found that mom relied on them more heavily for more babysitting and, in essence, co-parenting. There were more household chores to do with dad away, especially if mom had to go out to work. Also, with dad away, many said there seemed to be less opportunity to participate in sports and other after-school activities, either because of transportation constraints or financial burdens.
Formal and informal support networks
When asked about the support they received from others, some of the participants in the study said they were happy with and receptive to the support from family, friends, and more formal supports; others labeled all the attention as “phony.”
According to one teen, “At first when my dad got deployed there was a lot of support … like people calling, people giving us, you know, food and stuff. But then as time went on, it just kind of died down and nobody really cared that he was deployed.”
“Teens seemed to be struggling with finding a balance between wanting to talk about what was happening and wanting to be distracted from it,” says Mancini. “Several teens talked about the fact that they didn’t feel like they could talk to their nonmilitary friends about the deployment because they didn’t think they could possibly understand what they are experiencing. Others said they really appreciated some of the formal activities they were allowed to participate in (like the camps and outings sponsored by youth services), especially where they could just have fun and not be forced to talk about the deployment.
Frequency of communication
Teens reported a great deal of contact with their deployed parent. “The proliferation of the Internet and cell phones have made frequent communication easy; some teens are even in daily contact with their deployed parent,” says Huebner. Such communication was often helpful because teens were assured that everything was okay and that the parent wasn’t hurt. In other cases, however, communication served to heighten teens’ worry because they thought about the deployment a lot more.
When a deployed parent returns
The longer the parent was away, the more difficulty the reunion seemed to be. “A lot is happening developmentally during the teen years and teens can mature a great deal in a matter of 12 to 18 months,” says Huebner. Teens revealed that their returning parent often tried to treat them as if they were the same age and maturity level as when the parent left. “They voiced frustration over not being given credit for all the responsibilities they had taken on while their parent was away,” says Huebner.
Complete study findings have been submitted to the Military Family Research Institute and the Department of Defense. “This study will help shed light on what teens in military families are experiencing, especially the multiple ways youth cope with the stressful situation of deployment. We expect the findings to be very informative to military and civilian support professionals as they work to improve both formal and informal resources for teens and families during deployment,” says Mancini.
Future analyses by the two Virginia Tech researchers will continue to explore the personal and family life experiences of youth in military families when a parent is deployed. This military family research project complements Huebner and Mancini’s earlier research on adolescent development, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence and the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal.
— Barbara L. Micale, Virginia Tech National Capital Region