US military families are facing unprecedented times of complexity and stress due to overseas deployment. Young people in these families have unique concerns and challenges, and often feel upset, distracted and scared as loved ones are deployed, sometimes multiple times. Many feel unable to tell anyone about it.
Youth program staff may be working with these "suddenly military" youth and not be aware of it, particularly when the deployed family member is in the US National Guard and Reserve. How can we better equip those working with youth in civilian settings to recognize and meet the needs of military youth?
As part of the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development's national research and outreach, we recently invited Dr. Angela Huebner, associate professor in human development at Virginia Tech, to present findings on the impact of deployment on military youth and families. The event was funded by the Department of Defense through the Arizona Center for Research and Outreach.
Youth programs can be an important protective factor for young people, but staying involved when a parent is deployed can be a challenge for them. Program staff need to be aware that during parental deployment, youth may have other family obligations or need transportation or financial assistance to stay involved. There are programs to help, but as a community we need to have the issues facing military youth on our radar.
During the event, teen speaker Kiana Kelii, a National Guard youth and member of the Minnesota Military Teen Panel, shared her own home front experience of deployment. I was struck by Kiana's account of missing assignment deadlines and being dropped from the honors programs at school when her grades slipped during her father's deployment. Might her teachers have handled her situation differently if they had been aware of what was happening at home?
According to Dr. Huebner, if you know of a young person from a military family, some ways to help them cope with deployment are to:
- Prepare them for change. Talk about the situation and what everyone can do to cope.
- Educate them on normative responses to having a parent deployed, like worry, and poor concentration.
- Normalize stress and conflict in the family. Have family meetings to address how everyone is feeling.
- Encourage them to maintain positive friendships and support networks, especially with other youth with deployed parents.
But the fact is that with thousands of families affected in every state, program staff may be working with military families and not be aware of it. How else can we as a community--those of us working with and on behalf of youth--intentionally support young people before, during or after the deployment of a parent or loved one? If you have military youth in your program, classroom or neighborhood, what experiences have you had?
Editor's note: The Extension Center for Youth Development offers support to youth in military families through Minnesota Operation: Military Kids.