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How To Help Family Deal With Stress
By Tania Glenn, Readiness Group International
Critical incidents have deep and lasting effects on law enforcement officers. Anyone who has been through a line of duty death or some sort of aviation disaster knows that the impact and ripple effects are both powerful and long lasting, and are not limited to those who are directly serving.
Families of pilots and ground officers also suffer during critical events. Spouses, children and loved ones experience what we call secondary traumatic stress, or vicarious traumatization. This is when family members see, hear or experience the trauma that you have sustained because of their closeness to you. In turn, they begin to experience many of the same reactions, including anger, grief, fear and anxiety. In the case of a line of duty death, your loved ones may transition from being supportive of your career to being hesitant and fearful about what you do. The question, "What if it happens to you?" resonates every time you put on your uniform and go back to work.
Because of the nature of the work, successful law enforcement families must adapt to a different sort of lifestyle. This includes interesting schedules, missed holidays, and dinner conversation that other families would be shocked to overhear, just to name a few. In addition to this, your families also must accommodate a higher level of stress because of what you do. Law enforcement spouses have a very different outlook and lifestyle than their counterparts whose spouses work "regular" jobs.
It is imperative that, in the aftermath of a critical event, spouses are given the chance to debrief as well. Critical Incident Stress Management teams now typically consist not only of the trained peer counselors, but also of trained spouses who can come to the aid of your loved ones when they are affected. In addition to this, it is important for couples that go through a major event to continue to communicate and support each other. Sometimes, this is much easier said than done. We should never assume that because our families are flexible and handle stress like pros, they are immune
to having their own sets of reactions.
Your children maintain this different lifestyle as well. They adjust to your schedules just as much as your partners do. They also have a different status with their peers. Many young children dream of becoming policemen, firefighters or astronauts. Your children hold a certain rank over the kids sitting around them, whose parents are accountants, computer programmers, and salesmen.
Unfortunately, when a major incident happens, the responses of other children toward your own can be brutal. I have worked with the sons and daughters of police officers who have been shouted at and blamed after local police officers (not their parents) have had to shoot teenagers or were involved in collisions that killed children.
Your children depend on you to take extra good care of them after a major event. This includes allowing them to express their feelings, talking to them openly and honestly in terms that they can understand, forewarning their teachers about what has occurred and allowing them to see counselors if they need to. One flight paramedic told me that even though he and his wife had kept quiet about his organization’s recent crash while at home, his four-year-old son had started drawing pictures of crashed helicopters since the day of the incident. Trust me, your children are fully aware of what is going on.
Including your family in the recovery process is an important part of any critical incident. As families get through these troubled times, the potential for growth and family cohesiveness is profound.