Return to Skip Menu

Main Content

Study cites teens' mixed emotions about parent deployment


BLACKSBURG, Va., Dec. 20, 2005 – Understanding how a parent’s deployment affects the emotional and behavioral development of their teenage children is the focal point of research conducted by Angela Huebner, associate professor of human development at Virginia Tech, National Capital Region, and Jay A. Mancini, professor of human development, 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, based in Virginia Tech's College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, conducted focus groups comprised of 107 youth attending summer camps in Hawaii, Washington, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia, all sponsored by the National Military Family Association.

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 (over 469,999) of the children of deployed parents are age one and under), 33 percent (over 400,000) are between the ages of six and 11 and about 25 percent (over 300,000) are youth 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.

Focus groups conducted by Huebner and Mancini examined how life changes for teens when a parent is deployed. Findings suggest there are several over riding 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 parent returns home. In all but one case, the deployed parent was the father.

Teens whose parents talked to them about where the service member would be, what new responsibilities the teen needed to take on, and how much they were loved, seemed better able to cope than those whose parents simply left for duty with no discussion," said Huebner.

In some cases, the teens' behavior changed for the better; in other cases, for the worst. Many teens attributed falling grades to being distracted with worry about their parent. Others' grades improved because they didn't want to disappoint their parent. In an effort to protect other family members, some hid their emotions. On the other hand, teens also said they were easily angered, snappy and short tempered about things that usually wouldn't upset them.

"While several participants mentioned that their relationship with the at-home parent improved because they could spend more time together, many others described their parent as 'stressed out' and less available due to other responsibilities and concerns," said Mancini.

Some teens in the study were receptive to support from family, friends, and more formal groups; others labeled all the attention "phony." "Teens seemed to be struggling to find a balance between wanting to talk about what was happening and wanting to be distracted from it," said Mancini.

They also voiced frustration at not being given credit for all the responsibilities they had taken on while their parent was away, said Huebner.

The longer the parent was away, the more difficult the reunion. "A lot happens developmentally during the teen years; teens can mature a great deal in a matter of 12-18 months," said Huebner. "The returning parent often treats them as if they were of the same age and maturity level as when the parent left."

"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," said Mancini.

Complete study findings have been submitted to the Military Family Research Institute and the Department of Defense. A copy of the study can be found here.

Virginia Tech has fostered a growing partnership with the greater metropolitan Washington D.C. community since 1969. Today, the university's presence in the National Capital Region includes graduate programs and research centers in Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church, Leesburg, Manassas, and Middleburg. In addition to supporting the university's teaching and research mission, Virginia Tech's National Capital Region has established collaborations with local and federal agencies, businesses, and other institutions of higher education.