(Always) Thinking About Wellness
with Dawn-Elise Snipes
Children of Law Enforcement Officers
Children of law enforcement officers often go through many stages of acceptance of the job. Helping them deal with the job is often very challenging. There will be times they don’t really care, times when they idolize you, times when they would prefer not to know you (teenagers) and periods of very high anxiety, afraid that Mommy or Daddy will leave for work and not come home.
Around elementary school, children are still pretty concrete, but a lot more aware than we often give them credit for. If they start acting anxious about you leaving for work, there are a few of things you can do. First, help them articulate their feelings and identify the source of it. (i.e. They are afraid you will not come home because they saw a story on TV about someone who got shot, or they are angry because you are gone all of the time etc.). If they tell you they are afraid, then you can start to deal with it there.
If they tell you they are angry or they start acting out it is a little fuzzier. Anger is a defense mechanism that protects us from fear, so they may be angry because you are gone a lot or they may be afraid when you are gone and express it through anger/acting out.
If they are anxious, prepare them before you leave by telling them you are well trained and protected in your special gear. If you haven't already, show them your gear and tell them how it protects you. When you come home, at the first opportunity, "debrief" them. Remind them that you went out and your team worked together and you are home safe. Try to avoid making analogies that can backfire -- like working together like a football team, because there is rarely a football team that does not lose. After a while, they will start to feel it as more run-of-the-mill and settle in.
If they say they are angry because you are gone a lot (or that seems to be the case even if they do not or cannot articulate it) try cutting back on overtime work, setting aside 3 1-hour blocks of special quality time with them each week and making sure to keep promises (Don’t promise to make a Little League game and then get stuck at work).
When there are media-publicized shootings, it will (re-)ignite their fears to some degree, so you may have to resume reassuring them each time you leave. When there is a shooting, discuss that with them if they ask questions ... Although you do not know it will not happen to you, you do know that any injury will probably not be life threatening. Emphasize the mundane aspects of your job, that much of the time is spent driving around, planning and staging, the actual dangerous part does not often last more than a few minutes.
Also, tell them that you love them and you do not take foolish chances, because your job is to come home and be there for them and make sure everyone on your team does the same. That is why you have all the special equipment and training, so you can stay safe.
If you can, try not to leave for work with them angry at you or you angry at them. Be forewarned that they may think you won’t go if they are mad at you and try to hold you hostage by throwing a tantrum. At this age, kids have magical thinking and believe their anger towards you can bring harm to you. Worse yet, if you do get hurt, they often end up having a lot of guilt to work through because they believe they "wished" it on you. Ultimately, you can reassure them you love them and you will be fine and it is okay for them to be angry, but at some point, you just have to go. (Sometimes reminding them of other times they got really angry at you but no harm befell you can be reassuring.)
Finally, evaluate the kinds of messages your kids are getting from other family members, other adults, and their inquisitive friends and classmates. These messages may be in the form of questions ("Isn’t it scary to have a daddy that is a cop?" or "Has your mommy ever been shot?"), overhearing statements/conversations from other people about what they think about your job or saw on TV (Did you hear about that cop that got shot out in Virginia? Isn’t that an awfully dangerous assignment), or nonverbal reactions people have to you/your job (i.e. their eyes get really big when you tell them what your job is or what you did on a given day).
Finally, video games that portray cops getting shot/shooting people also can be very detrimental. Obviously in those games the officers are only as good as the player, so they get killed a lot more than in real life.
For those officers on SWAT, as adults we know that although SWAT call-outs are more dangerous than most day-to-day stuff, but if you are on SWAT you are also super trained, physically protected and mentally prepared for the event as opposed to a traffic stop that suddenly goes bad--which you may or may not be as mentally prepared for.
As your kids move into more abstract thinking (teenagers) you can discuss with them this fact and the reality that being in a civilian car driving on the road is more dangerous than being a police officer. But for now, that would just scare them more and make them not want you to even drive.
None of this will be easy or will resolve things overnight. Helping your children desensitize to the job and see it as routine is the first step right now. They still see you as a necessary part of their life as you provide their basic needs, so they will get very anxious if they think there is a chance that you will go away. Try and be patient remembering that their reactions are going to reflect a host of factors, and like adults, if they are overtired, sick or there has been a transition in their lives, they will not deal as well with the day to day stressors.