If you’re a military teen, you know there are ups and downs to living the lifestyle that comes with your parents’ career. While some of the challenges are standard for a teen, others — such as duty-station moves, school transitions and deployments — can really put a strain on your mental health.
While DOD Military Community and Family Policy experts acknowledge that challenges will always exist for military teens, there are programs and resources available to help them get through tough times. Since not all military families know about these resources, we thought we would highlight some important ones here. We’ll also detail coping mechanisms some military teens have told us they used on their own mental health journeys.
Elena Ashburn, a high school senior based in Florida, moved to a new high school for her sophomore year. It wasn’t easy.
“It was so hard for me to go from a place and people I loved so much to a totally new and different environment that didn’t feel as accepting,” the 18-year-old said. “I’ve moved four or five times before that, and I’ve never struggled as much as I did with that one.”
Ashburn’s family sought out a therapist for her through a private practice; however, parents can also get nonmedical counseling for their teens through military resources, regardless of whether they live on- or off-base. Teens can be connected with mental health providers through Military OneSource and with the help of Military and Family Life Counselors. MFLCs are professionals trained to help recognize teens who are struggling and help them make meaningful connections.
“Quite often, we find that the challenges that teens using these services are facing are around relationships and behavioral issues,” said Eddy Mentzer, the acting director for DOD Military Community Support Programs. “[MFLCs] can really get to the heart of the challenges that they’re facing.”
MFLCs work at installation family support centers, child development centers and within many youth and teen programs. They’re also available at DoDEA and public schools that have a high concentration of military-connected students. They have a duty to warn others if they think an individual might cause harm to his/herself or others. Outside of that obligation, though, meetings with MFCLs are confidential; they don’t keep notes or report the people with whom they meet.
Ashburn was not aware of the MFLC program; however, she said her therapist has done wonders for her mental health. She’s also found that art, music and writing have been avenues to help her cope by expressing herself and collaborating with friends.
Meanwhile, Ashburn met Matthew Oh, another high school senior, their freshman year at a public school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Both are outspoken, but they believe they’re in the minority as teens.
“Elena and I are very confident when it comes to talking about ourselves and talking about what’s going on in our lives, but for a lot of people, that’s not the case,” Oh said. “A lot of our peers are the type who would just keep it to themselves if given the option and try to deal with it themselves.”
While MFLCs and other professionals are trained to identify, understand and respond to various mental health conditions, the DOD is looking to expand that training to others. Ganote said a youth mental health first aid course will be implemented across the force in early 2022. It will teach front-line youth development professionals how to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health issues and how to start nonjudgmental conversations with those who might be at risk.
“We’re going to be providing them with the training to give our staff the confidence and the tools to ask a very powerful question: How can I help?” explained Dianna Ganote, a program analyst for the DOD Office of Children, Youth and Families.
Regardless of the avenue used to get help, Oh said it’s important for teens to find their voice. “Expressing yourself and releasing your emotions is crucial to surviving military life,” he said. “ Don’t bottle up your troubles. Release them in a form that’s comfortable to you.”
Continuity is key for teens who have moved multiple times, and the School Liaison Program can be vital to bridging any gaps that might arise. Every installation has at least one school liaison who can connect transitioning students with peer sponsors. They can also help them sort out school-related transition issues, such as credit transfers or getting onto a sports team that’s already begun its season. The school liaisons are well-versed in the Military Interstate Children’s Compact, which all 50 states and the DOD have signed to help smooth out these transitional bumps.
Many parents don’t know about the school liaison program. If they did, experts said some of their transition-related concerns, such as a student not getting credit for a particular subject, could be resolved with a phone call or email from the school liaison to the school’s administrator.
School liaisons are well-connected with off-base school administrators. Even if you live an hour from your closest installation, they should still be able to help.
“We want people to know these programs exist so they will tap into them in the hopes that they will make these challenges a little bit easier to overcome,” Mentzer said.
Military installations host 223 youth and teen centers worldwide. Each one aims to create opportunities for physical, mental and social growth in the children who attend their various programs, which include sports and fitness activities, recreational programs, specialty camps, classes and youth sponsorships.
For teens who live far from base and don’t have great access to youth centers, various partners have stepped in to fill the gap. Nationally, 4H and the Boys & Girls Club of America have partnerships with the DOD. BGCA offers a Military Youth Outreach program, which funds memberships for students who live off-base, including those in rural areas and inner cities. Installations often work with a host of local resources, as well.
Victor Oluwagbemi, whose mother is an Air Force veteran and still works for the service as a civilian, is an outspoken advocate for youth mental health through BGCA. As a child, Oluwagbemi went to an on-base elementary school. He said his youth center was critical in helping him build a strong support system.
“It was hard to develop long lasting relationships with my peers because everyone would constantly move away, but I stayed in the same place,” Oluwagbemi explained, noting that his mother was a civilian by then. “After being introduced to the Fort Dix youth programs, I was able to cope with that separation. I put my energy into clubs, making friends and finding new passions like volunteering. The youth center was the perfect resource to help me enjoy life without worrying about being alone.”
“I used the youth centers on base many times,” said Ashburn, who was homeschooled until high school. “That was a great way for me to meet other homeschooled military kids. I always had a great time.”
In 2020, youth centers kept more than 580,000 kids connected through the pandemic using virtual programming, DOD experts said. The year prior, more than 850,000 children used the youth centers.
Military Kids Connect is another platform for youth to connect with their peers before and after a move. You can also search for various installation resources at https://installations.militaryonesource.mil/search?program-service=12/view-by=ALL.
Learning to adapt
School-related extracurricular activities are another way students can make connections and get acclimated — although those can still require some adaptation.
“When I got here, it was very lonely and isolating,” Oh said of his move to South Korea his sophomore year. “This DoDEA school didn’t have the same opportunities as I was used to in the states. It made it really hard to plug into a community as I had been able to do in the past.”
Oh, a self-described “music kid,” made friends at his prior school during a summertime band camp. He tried to recreate that culture in Korea, but the dynamic there just didn’t match. He said he was forced to “reshape his perspective” using that resilience that military teens are so used to hearing about. Eventually, he got a drumline going.
“It’s not what I’m used to, but it’s still fun,” the 17-year-old said. “You have to keep your mind open and explore new opportunities. If you don’t do that — if you don’t adapt — you’re going to be left behind.”
Ashburn agreed. She said the best way she has made connections was by trying new things.
“I’ve thrown myself into things within my school because I knew that these were the kids I was going to be around for the next two to three years,” she said.
Ashburn also turned to online extracurriculars to bridge the opportunity gap in her new, fast-paced school. “It’s a way that I can continue working on things that I love without having to worry about moving and leaving something behind, because it’ll always be here,” said Ashburn, who, along with Oh, helped co-found Bloom, a group meant to empower, highlight and connect military teens across the globe.
Dealing with deployment
Military kids often have to say goodbye to a parent who has to deploy for an extended period of time, which can be very difficult, especially for teens. Military OneSource offers 15 tips to help teens cope at https://www.militaryonesource.mil/family-relationships/parenting-and-children/parenting-through-deployment/15-tips-for-helping-your-teenager-deal-with-deployment/.
Ashburn said her dad has deployed for a total of 15 months, not including two-week trainings, while Oh’s dad has had two major deployments. Both said their families leaned on relatives and their community during those times.
“For the first deployment, my aunt came to live with us. For the second, we were fortunate to be stationed in my mom’s home state of Hawaii, so we had a lot of family nearby,” Oh said.
The nonmedical counseling mentioned above is also recommended for teens struggling with deployments.
Domestic violence concerns
Some teens have also experienced some form of domestic violence in their lives. The Family Advocacy Program, which can be found at every installation, is available to help with concerns about domestic or child abuse and problematic sexual behavior in youths. There’s also the victim’s assistance directory that gives the numbers to several 24/7 hotlines available in each state.
And always remember — the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 en Español. If calling isn’t an option, you can chat live at https://www.thehotline.org, or text “START” to 88788.
Not sure where to look? Call an expert
Yes — we know there are a LOT of resources to filter through on Military OneSource. If you’re ever overwhelmed or not sure what to look for on the site, remember that you can call 800-342-9647, too. OneSource triage specialists will listen to your personal challenges and direct you to the resources that exist.