By Dr. Marie Isom, faculty member, American Military University
It is hard for first responders to mask challenges or struggles they are experiencing from those they are closest to. Internalized problems will often find a way out through body language, tone of voice, maladaptive coping strategies, or anger after things build up for too long.
For first responders who are also parents or caregivers, it can be incredibly difficult to balance their own challenges in a healthy way while also recognizing and helping their children with their own emotional struggles.
Parents should recognize that being a first responder can have an effect on their children. There are unique experiences and challenges associated with being the child of a first responder. The child’s personality, temperament, and age of exposure to different experiences can benefit or impede development. Adaptability to changing schedules and routines, exposure (overhearing conversations and media access), connectedness, and awareness of parent workplace safety all contribute to a child’s ability to be resilient to difficulties associated with their parent’s profession.
To support your child through potential challenges, it’s important to have appropriate coping strategies and be mentally healthy. Children and adolescents are very observant and replicate modeled behavior by their caregiver’s responses to different situations. When a parent is able to self-regulate their emotions and have an awareness of appropriate coping strategies that work for them, they are better able to help their child do the same and appropriately express themselves.
How Does Self-Regulation Work?
Self-regulation is the ability to appropriately handle your emotions, thoughts, and/or behaviors without outside supports. By strengthening self-awareness and self-regulation skills, many first responders are able to modify their reactions to stress in a healthy way.
Through self-regulation, you will be able to identify healthy coping strategies that are specific to you. This first requires reflecting on your interests, the things you do to relax, how you express and entertain yourself, and how you connect with others. Individualized coping strategies can help to regulate your responses to different challenges that inevitably surface.
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By having a strong sense of self and meeting your individual needs, you are better able to handle life’s social-emotional demands and that will have a positive impact on those around you. You can’t effectively take care of others without taking the time to take care of yourself first. When an individual practices self-regulation, they are better able to communicate, problem solve, and be empathetic toward others.
Encourage Children to Express Themselves
When talking to your children about your job, especially when the child has heard adverse comments about your profession from peers, the media, or others, it is important to validate their feelings by being empathetic and understanding. This encourages them to share their response and feelings to these difficult situations. Providing a safe place for children to express themselves without judgment will encourage them to share how they feel and allow you to assess the situation to determine appropriate next steps.
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One strategy parents can use to discuss difficult topics, in addition to allowing children to ask questions, is to respond by asking something like, “What do you think that means?” This can help parents to better understand their child’s thought process and determine the direction of the conversation and amount of information to share. Often with uncomfortable topics or situations, we have a tendency to overshare or go on tangents; by asking questions, we are more likely to avoid this.
Know What Your Child is Able to Cognitively Process
When children have tough questions about a parent’s job or express fear, concern, or worry about a parent’s job, it’s important to respond honestly but also in a developmentally appropriate way to avoid additional hardship. Having an understanding of child development is important to determine what type of information your child or adolescent is cognitively able to process and what they can handle.
For example, when watching the news, younger children, particularly those under eight years old, cannot differentiate if what they are seeing is the same event over and over again or if it is a new incident each time. This means they have a difficult time cognitively separating fantasy from reality and their developmental state impacts their perspective and reaction. Indirect exposure to violence can have adverse implications of emotional and psychosocial problems.
The cognitive development of adolescents requires a different approach. The brain isn’t fully developed until around the age of 25 and it develops from back to front with the prefrontal cortex being the last to fully mature. The prefrontal cortex is where decision-making and executive functioning takes place. Combined with puberty and hormones, this can result in challenges with impulsivity, rational thinking, and problem solving in adolescents.
It’s important to check in and communicate with them to gain a sense of their understanding of what they have learned through peer interactions and the media. When adolescents share concerns, it’s important to listen without minimizing their perception or dismissing their beliefs. Finding a balance between clarifying accurate information and addressing their concerns is important. It’s also important to be patient; often adolescents need information repeated or they repeat questions not for lack of listening or paying attention, but to help them understand and make sense of the information.
There is no easy solution or one-size-fits all approach when meeting the varying needs of children of public safety professionals. But when parents have an understanding of a child’s cognitive capacity, have strong communication skills, and present as a united front, they are better able to navigate the unique challenges that arise in a first responder family. Additionally, by practicing self-awareness, self-regulation, positive coping strategies, and taking the time to care for yourself, you are better able to provide the stability the child needs when navigating varying life experiences.
About the Author: Dr. Marie Isom is an Associate Professor of School Counseling at American Military University. She earned a B.S. in Psychology at Central Michigan University, an M.A. in School Counseling at Marymount University, and an Ed. D. in Counseling Psychology at Argosy University/Phoenix. She is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, an Approved Clinical Supervisor, a National Board Certified Counselor, a Certified Professional Coach, and a National Board Certified K-12 Professional School Counselor. She specializes in counseling and therapy with children, adolescents, and families. To contact the author, send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.