By Lara Healey
From the academy to retirement, most public safety careers impact the lives of those closest to the employee – friends, parents, siblings, a spouse, children. Everyone in the extended family, at some point, will experience unique challenges as part of a public safety employee’s support system. And though many first responders and public safety personnel thrive independently, let’s take a glimpse into the life of a law enforcement family married with children.
Shift Work – It’s Everyone’s Schedule
Several factors impact shift selection (if you are tenured enough to have a choice), and sometimes the employee’s preferences do not align with those of family members. With a cost-benefit analysis and a little shift-pick luck, the schedule can provide the employee and the family with enough rest and interaction time to remain healthy and connected.
Or, let’s be realistic. Your family member is on the graveyard weekend shift for years, and you try to keep the house quiet so they can sleep during the day, celebrating holidays and special occasions whenever possible, before the next shift.
If this is your reality, there are steps you can take to ease the tension. Refrain from comparing your family’s schedule to that of other families. This will help everyone accept and adapt to the new normal. Adapt is the key word, as shift needs are unpredictable. A late call, a long report, a sick colleague, and another family meal is missed.
In addition, understand your loved one has limited control over their daily schedule and training requirements. You would never get mad at your child if their coach kept them late for a team meeting, so strive to have the same understanding for your public safety family member.
Finally, be prepared to operate without their involvement or assistance, just in case. You can schedule day care, commitments and your own work schedule around your loved one’s schedule, but that’s no guarantee they’ll arrive at the expected time. And you might not be able to reach them on the phone. Do your best to establish and communicate a backup plan for shuttling the kids and give them assurance a trusted adult will always be available.
This level of understanding and flexibility does not come easy. Each day brings a new challenge.
The Family “Go-Bag”
To help you take on the short- and long-term challenges of coping with law enforcement family life, develop a family “go-bag.” Just as law enforcement professionals have go-bags with essential gear, a family go-bag contains essential skills to create a successful home life. Success is a safe home, in every sense: A place in which the employee and his or her support system are equally important. A place where we strive to improve and maintain the family’s overall health – physical, mental and emotional.
Go-bag items will vary from family to family, but here are three common skills every public safety family member should carry:
Public safety family life is unique. Special events and life moments will be missed. Time together may be brief or interrupted. Without the ability to adapt to scheduling changes and the added pressures of this life, it is easy for both the public safety employee and his or her support system to feel overwhelmed, disappointed and underappreciated. Stop staring at the family at the park; stop wondering if your children will be upset that one parent never makes it to school events. This is your new normal. Dig into your go-bag and find some gear to help you adapt to what you are encountering.
Strive for resiliency. Sometimes children are better at adjusting than adults. As much as they thrive on schedules and predictability, children also recover more quickly from changes. They are a good act to follow. In addition, be flexible, and not just with schedules. Your public safety family member may (and should be) hypervigilant, an essential skill that often spills over into family life. When their hypervigilance doesn’t add stress or anxiety to the family, adjust to it. Offer them their preferred seat in a restaurant, where they have a good view of the people and layout. Let them scout your children’s school for safety concerns and address issues with the proper adults (not the children!). That said, flexibility goes both ways. If hypervigilant behavior increases tension or fear in the family, communicate and work toward an adaptation that considers all family members.
A positive attitude can be the most essential yet challenging piece of gear to use. All attitudes can be contagious. If you’re feeling negative about coping with law enforcement family life, there’s a good chance your children will too – and vice versa. Try to put a positive twist on things, especially with children. When it’s difficult to find a silver lining, perhaps opt to deescalate. For example, when a child is disappointed their parent won’t make it to the soccer game, acknowledge the child’s feelings and remind them certain jobs don’t end when the clock strikes 5:00 – but that their parent is equally disappointed they missed the game because they were so excited to see it.
Also, avoid venting to children. Complaining about a scheduling change or work commitment heightens the entire family’s sensitivities. Children are especially vulnerable to this; they may worry their parent is on a dangerous call or their parents aren’t getting along.
Instead of adding extra verbal ammo to your go-bag, add extra patience. Put another way: Fake it ’til you make it.
No go-bag is very useful without effective communication among family members. You can’t support each other and the family if you don’t make your needs clear. If you would prefer your spouse to be home rather than working overtime, ask if they can compromise. In addition, consider these other important family communication elements:
- Safety – spoken. In any public safety home, whether or not children are present, communication is the key to safety. Combat curiosity by verbalizing clear expectations – e.g., if you see this, do not touch it. Show your children your loved one’s law enforcement gear. Answer questions.
- Safety – practiced. Just because your children have seen the gear and heard the rules does not mean they will obey. Adults must always ensure safe gear practices. Whenever firearms are in the home, all safety rules apply, no matter your job. If your loved one isn’t safely storing gear when they come home, speak up immediately.
- Parental guidance suggested. With children of any age, it is essential to reassure them their loved one is physically safe. Sometimes a tour of the police station is a good way to show a child their loved one is surrounded by friends and safety equipment. A positive visual of their parent’s workplace can be lasting and impactful.
- Know your audience. Children may be confused by negative commentary they encounter pertaining to law enforcement officers. Acknowledge their concerns and have an age-appropriate discussion. Be considerate of how you explain sensitive topics to your family members, striving to instill a sense of security as opposed to inducing fear. If you tell your child, “Don’t tell anyone Daddy is a police officer,” they may be confused and worried for his safety or their own. Remember: Children of all ages are perceptive. Be respectful and adjust your levels of communication accordingly. If your teenager asks about a sensitive call out, discuss appropriate details with them. They will appreciate your openness and it may also allay their concerns.
- Define terms. Without being dismissive of their shift experiences, discuss with your public safety family member which duty-related topics are acceptable to discuss with you and the children.
- Establish outlets. For every communication wall you put up to protect yourself and the children from the harsh realities of public safety work, it is essential to ensure your loved one always has an outlet. If you notice any self-isolation, self-medication or other worrisome behavior by your public safety loved one, DO NOT IGNORE IT. It will not get better on its own. Just as a mother with post-partum depression might hesitate to seek help because she fears someone will take her child, public safety personnel might hold similar fears as it pertains to their job security or fear people will perceive them as weak if they seek help. Mental wellness services exist on the agency level and from outside resources; however, if psychological, medical, spiritual or peer support groups are not viable options for your loved one, encourage them to spend time with informal outlets—an old military buddy, a sibling. When all else fails, you may need to take initiative and confidentially contact a trusted friend of theirs, requesting they reach out. A simple text, call or bike ride from them can be good medicine. Finally, make sure everyone in the family has an outlet, including you. Mental wellness resources exist not just to address post-traumatic stress disorder and other public safety-specific needs. They exist to give everyone, even children, a safe place to communicate.
Training Is Key
Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham likes to say, “Every day is a training day.” Few, if any of us, will master the art of balancing a public safety home life. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get better at it. Each day, the entire family should practice using their go-bag gear and work to improve their adaptability, attitude and communication skills. Train as a team. This is not a one-man or one-woman show. This is an entire family, working toward a common goal of health and happiness.
Is your home life like a call-out? Do you need to walk around with emotional ballistic plates or personal protective equipment? Not quite, but you do need to come prepared, be ready to adapt, and train, train, train.
About the author
Lara Healey serves as the Executive Assistant to Lexipol’s CEO. She is the proud mother of two little girls and two young men and is married to a police officer, USMC GySgt (Ret.). Lara holds a B.A. in Political Science from UC San Diego, where she dedicated much of her time to military sociology and combat veteran PTSD support groups. During her time with the Naval Historical Center in Washington D.C., she was the youngest historian to contribute to the DoD publication Pentagon 9/11, interviewing witnesses and first responders to the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks.