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Hidden Hardships

For teens, the effects of a parent’s deployment may be masked by typical adolescent behavior. Know how to spot trouble.
Keeping open lines of communication with teens during and after a deployment is vital to helping them cope. For parents, that may mean listening more and talking less. ©SHUTTERSTOCK
Keeping open lines of communication with teens during and after a deployment is vital to helping them cope. For parents, that may mean listening more and talking less. ©SHUTTERSTOCK

The warning signs flashed brightly. But everyone in the household was busy looking in another direction, trying to be strong for their dad and husband, an Oklahoma National Guard Soldier.

Peyton Nix was 11 when her dad, Sergeant First Class Fount Nix, left for a 15-month deployment to Afghanistan. By age 13, she was in a full-blown depressive state, eventually revealing to a counselor a plan to take her own life. There were times during Fount’s deployment when Peyton gave hints she was spiraling. But her mom, Wendy, was working so hard to put on a brave face for Fount and the family that she didn’t see them.

“I got really good at putting everything in a package with a bow on it,” Wendy says. “I didn’t unpack the real emotions. You think, That’s part of being a military family: We’re strong. We can handle it. We don’t show weakness. [But Peyton] didn’t think it was OK. One day, she asked if I was sad that Daddy was gone. I said, ‘Of course,’ and she said, ‘You never show it.’ ”

Like her mother, Peyton became adept at wearing a mask—putting on a mantle of strength like a superhero costume. But after Fount returned, a pall settled. Peyton sank further and further into hopelessness, never communicating the angst and anxiety she continued to feel about her dad’s service until it was almost too late.

Unfortunately, Peyton isn’t alone. Military kids are more likely than their civilian counterparts to consider and attempt suicide, according to an article published in European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in March 2015. 

For the study, researchers surveyed ninth- and 11th-graders throughout 261 California high schools in 2012 and 2013. They found that 23.5 percent of military kids surveyed said they had thought about suicide in the past year, compared with 18.1 percent of civilian students surveyed. The takeaway: Stress from more than a decade of war deployments had trickled down to the kids.

So how can you tell if your teen is exhibiting typical adolescent behavior or struggling with a negative emotional impact of your Guard service? Peyton, now a 19-year-old college freshman, and her family share their insights. 

We also asked for tips from Sergeant First Class (Ret.) Dawn Fields, a counselor at Shughart Middle School at Fort Bragg, NC. Fields served in the Active Duty Army from 1989 to 1998 and with the North Carolina Guard from 2000 to 2011. She has worked with military families on the challenges of deployments since 2006.  

Although the signals may be difficult to see among Guard kids attending civilian schools, counselors at on-base schools notice distinct warning signs that correlate to the tempo of missions, Fields says. Teens experiencing uncertainty from significant transitions at home may exhibit one or more of the following behaviors in their daily lives: 

  • Lethargy: Your child may no longer want to go to school or participate in extracurricular clubs or sports. Watch out for plummeting grades or changes in eating and sleeping habits.
  • Distress: This can include arguing and conflict with friends, talk of suicide, or drawings of death scenes.
  • Isolation: “When they isolate themselves from friends and family, that’s huge,” Fields says. “They suddenly have no support system.”

This was the case for Peyton. Although introverted, she’d always enjoyed hanging out with friends. But as she continued her plunge, she isolated herself and lost all interest in activities. “She was in a deep funk,” Wendy says. “She was not wanting to get out of bed or go to school; her hygiene was lacking.”

Be aware that you may not see these symptoms until after the deployment or other Guard-related absence. Peyton’s suicidal behaviors surfaced more than a year after her dad’s return. That’s because she worked hard to mimic her mother’s stoic outlook while he was away. 

“It was a bunch of small events that led to this—small feelings that escalated and tumbled over time,” Peyton says. “It built up gradually until it was way too much for me to handle.” 

Staying in tune with your teenager’s feelings about deployment is vital and sometimes means listening more and speaking less. “Parents often tell them what they should be thinking, or brush off what they’re saying,” Fields says. “You have to pay attention.” 

Peyton says her anxiety during her dad’s deployment was fueled by a lack of information—social media was not as prevalent then—and knowing more about the situation would have helped her cope. She didn’t discuss her feelings with her dad during their Skype chats, and questions to her mom about his welfare were met with cheerful replies.

When teens ask about the risks involved with a parent’s mission, Fields says, stay positive but don’t sugarcoat the situation. Give specific answers, then wait for follow-up questions. A few pointers: 

  • Watch the news with your teen, then ask for their thoughts on the coverage. This gives them an opportunity to discuss their fears.
  • Be aware that too much information can also tip the anxiety scale.
  • Avoid saying things that minimize their concerns, like: “You should be used to this by now.” 
  • Also stay away from statements that might fuel angst, such as: “While your dad’s away, you need to be the man of the house.”

More than anything else, this is what Peyton wants Guard families to know: “Emotions aren’t scary.”

Fount agrees and says it pays to talk with comrades about what’s going on in your family.

“It’s OK to speak about it, to share your story—especially if you are looking for support as a Soldier,” he says, adding that his chain of command was highly supportive during Peyton’s eight-day hospitalization, after she revealed her suicide plan. Fount says he faced enormous guilt, feeling that his service had severely affected his child.

“I questioned everything,” he says. “It was devastating. I think I didn’t do anything for three days. I didn’t leave the house.”

Fields advises that, although guilt can seem overwhelming, “the best thing a service member can do is to link their family with Army community services in their area. The Guard has Family Assistance Centers with access to resources for every parent.” 

And if you see signs of a planned suicide, don’t waste time—seek professional help immediately.

“If your child is telling you they want to harm themselves, they need to know you’ll take them seriously,” Fields says. “Ask them, ‘Have you thought about dying, and how would you do that?’ Make sure they have someone they can talk to, including access to a counselor or therapist.” 

Most important, tell your child not to be afraid to express their feelings. “Sometimes it takes more strength to cry than it does to hold it together,” Fields says. “The trick is not remaining broken.”

SFC (Ret.) Dawn Fields, a middle school counselor and former Guard Soldier, recommends these resources for struggling parents and teens:

National Safe Place
Teens in a crisis can text the word “Safe” and their current location to 69866 for immediate help

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Get free and confidential emotional support 24/7

National Guard Family assistance centers
Helps with crisis intervention and referrals for Guard families

Families for Depression Awareness
Helps families recognize and cope with depression and bipolar disorder

The Trevor Project
Help for military teens in the LGBTQ community who suffer from depression
Get science-based info and resources on adolescent mental health

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Offers support groups and education for families struggling with mental health conditions