This past June, confetti fell to the ground as I graduated from high school. Years of hard work spanning several states and continents all led up to that walk across the stage. Afterwards, I quickly exited the auditorium and rushed into the open arms of the ones who helped me get there: my mom and dad.
My parents didn’t just guide a normal kid through twelve years of school, they guided a military kid through life. And as I sit here writing this article happy, healthy, and headed to college in a few short weeks, I can’t help but gush about how well they did (I swear, I have at least one humble bone in my body).
Civilian and military kids may grow up playing with the same toys or listening to the same music, but there are some distinct differences between them that call for variation in parenting. This significance only increases as your military kid blossoms into a military teen and enters the world of complicated relationships, dynamic emotions, and newfound independence. If you’re a current or future military mom or dad, pay attention and hone your focus because I’m about to reveal the ultimate guide to raising your military teen, from a military teen.
1. TREAT YOUR CHILDREN AS INDIVIDUALS
I think this one goes out to all parents: when you have multiple kids, that means multiple personalities and multiple sets of needs. Every child is a different, unique person with different strengths, sensitivities, and expectations. While your children might have the same parents, they are different people. Recognizing that will make all the difference.
Some aspects of military life can be extremely difficult for anyone to handle, especially for adolescents. Deployments, moves, and a heightened awareness of global conflicts are things your children will grow up with and things they will have to learn to cope with. Not every child will cope the same way. Not every child will receive the news of moving with glee. Not every kid knows how to go into a new school and make friends without a little assistance.
The idea of raising two children differently glows especially bright in the military atmosphere when we need different tools, support, and outlets in order to acclimate. Whereas I might need independence to explore our new environment on my own, my brother might need help finding clubs and activities to immediately jump into. We’re two different kids – treat us as such…please.
2. EMPOWER YOUR TEENAGER
On a scale of 1-10, how shocked would you be if I told you it’s not easy to march into a new school, knowing absolutely no one, every couple of years? What about trying out for a new soccer team amongst a group of kids you’ve never met? If it weren’t for the affirmations my parents bathed my brother and me in, I would have been like a turtle, stuck in my shell, through every one of those routine changes.
Putting genuine time, effort, and focus into developing your teen’s confidence from a young age is incredibly important. This can be as simple as practicing affirmations around the household or having your entire family cheer each other on. My parents are the ones who instilled confidence in me and I am simply the one who flourished in and grew it. Without that confidence, I can confidently say – pun intended- I would not have experienced much of the life I have lived in my eighteen years.
3. TRAVEL WITH YOUR TEEN
I was recently speaking with a friend whose dad was about to retire after twenty-five years of service. As many military kids do, we compared the places we’ve lived and where we’ve traveled. It was hard to hide my shock when she revealed she had never left the country except when living in Germany. Then while there for two years, she only went to one other European country. Paraphrasing her explanation: My family had dreamed and planned many trips, but they were always going to happen next week, or next weekend, or next month, until there were no more ‘nexts’ and we were heading back to the United States.
Make sure you take advantage of the constant moving and travel and see new places. As one military teen put it, “My parents have taken me on adventures and almost forced me to have fun in new places. They made sure I experienced something positive.”
However, much of a child’s quick-moving occurs when they are, well, a child. I can speak for myself when I say my quickest moves took place when I was very young. This same timeframe is when my family did lots of traveling. We went to Disney World twice and saw so much of the United States. While I am eternally grateful for these experiences, I was also much too young to remember most of them. Any traveling is better than none, but the age at which you take your military child or teen to see some sights is worth considering.
4. DON’T PRETEND TO UNDERSTAND, BUT EMBRACE THE DIFFERENCES FROM YOUR CHILDHOOD
We all had a childhood and most of us are lucky enough to have parental figures around. So, when it is your turn to parent, you will probably reflect upon your own childhood in preparing to do so. It is safe to assume that my parents did this, but they also wisely recognized that their childhood was distinctly different from mine due to the different careers my parents and my grandparents had.
Do not overlook the fact that your child is going to live a very different life than many civilian children do. It’s not going to be so different that it’s unrecognizable or unrelatable, but moving every one to two years and also having one of your parents disappear from the house for months at a time to walk into direct danger, will affect their life in a way you probably cannot understand. As you are now the parent and no longer the child, you will probably not understand this, but that’s okay! Please do not try or pretend to understand it, but accept that your child is living a different childhood than you did. We ask that you empathize with us, but do not pretend to understand or sugarcoat every aspect of our family’s military life.
5. CHECK IN WITH YOUR MILITARY TEEN
Just because military teens are “resilient” and familiar with change, doesn’t make life as a military teen any less difficult. The frequent leaving of friends doesn’t lessen the sting or make constant change any less stressful. I, for one, loved moving as a kid, but when I would take a break from the ever-shifting environment long enough to reflect on how I was feeling, I would often find myself sitting on my bed, clutching a stuffed animal and crying over what I lost in our move. The bottom line here is, check in with your military teen. They may seem like they are balancing the world on the tip of their pinkie and not even breaking a sweat; they may beam and tell everyone how much they love moving…but just check in.
I reached out to dozens of military teens asking for their input for this article. Dozens of different answers came in, but by far the most echoed response was a plea to check in. Establish a safe and supportive relationship in which you can talk about emotions, and then keep that thread open as they grow.
6. DON’T EXPECT 100% DURING A PCS
One contributor mentioned that she wished her parents did not expect 100% from her in all aspects of life after her moves, and after some time reflecting on her statement, I couldn’t agree more.
In the military, uniformity and precision are the name of the game. We typically hold ourselves to high standards and are expected to have mastered the art of starting over every few years. Sometimes you may nail this transition, acquiring new friends quickly and falling right into your new school, but it’s not always that easy.
Parents, it’s important to remember that each new environment is just that – new. Your military teen may struggle more or less with different moves and in different ways. Please give them time to adjust and offer resources rather than criticism if they are struggling. Do not expect every move – whether it’s the third or the eleventh – to be easy, smooth, or “normal.”
Well beautiful readers, that’s all I’ve got for you (unless you want to talk about Taylor Swift, Steelers football, or debate which Colleen Hoover book is the best). I skimmed through the pages of my childhood, thumbing through the parenting choices my parents made to raise what became a confident and happy military teen. Hopefully, in between the lines of my dialogue, you found some useful intel that can find its way into your household. Military teens are different from military kids as military kids are different from civilian kids – as we get older, we need different support and parenting approaches to guide us through our crazy lifestyle. While no parent is perfect, I hope these tips help you as you empower and raise your military teenager!
Genevieve Oakley is a freshman at Indiana University where she is studying Political Science in hopes of attending law school and later working in government. When her fingers are not dancing across a keyboard, her nose can be found in a book, or her hands wrapped around the steering wheel as she embarks on her next weekend trip to a new place. Genevieve’s love of traveling is inspired by the eleven moves she underwent as an Army brat of retired LTC Thomas Oakley.
Bloom, powered by the National Military Family Association (NMFA), is an organization dedicated to empowering, supporting, and connecting military teens around the world. Founded in 2020 by a group of high schoolers seeking to make a difference in their communities, Bloom has published over 200 blog posts on the military teen experience, engaged thousands on social media, and advocated for military teen issues through research and publications.
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