These are troubled times for police officers and their families, with an almost endless stream of bad press about law enforcement, along with unthinkable assassinations and ambushes, numerous anti-police protests, lethal mass shootings, and the increased threat of terrorism. Dash cams, body-worn cameras, and cellphone cameras have charged the atmosphere and affected the way officers work. Operating in this atmosphere adds to the challenges facing not only law enforcement, but also officers’ families. Law enforcement officers (LEOs) have their organizations and coworkers for backup and support. Families, on the other hand, are too often left to deal with their concerns and fears in isolation.
Research shows that when families are knowledgeable about police work and feel supported by their loved ones’ departments, their relationships are stronger and more resilient.1 What is your department doing to reach out to families during these difficult times? And is it enough?
Reaching out does not need to be expensive or complicated. Think about a family workshop—that perhaps takes place annually or bi-annually for new hires’ families—staffed by peer supporters, veteran police spouses, the department chaplain, and a culturally competent police clinician. Such a simple event could be social, fun, and informative, and provide law enforcement families with an opportunity for networking.
The curriculum at such a workshop doesn’t have to be complicated. The following eight concepts strengthen resilience and reduce anxiety.2 These concepts are building blocks to form the basis for discussions, exercises, and handouts—an event doesn’t need to address all eight to be successful.
1. Reduce anxiety: One of the most effective ways to diminish anxiety is to distinguish between what families and individuals can and can’t control. Think of a donut as a model. In the donut hole are the things people can control—beliefs, actions, thoughts, ethics, and professionalism. The donut itself represents a sphere of influence. Influence is different from control. The ability to influence others depends on how well families communicate and how skillfully they negotiate relationships. Outside the donut is the great wide world of things and people that affect families deeply, but over which they have little or no control. Participants can provide examples for each donut element or circle and any situation can be analyzed accordingly.
2. Respond rather than react: Reactions tend to be emotional, immediate, and intense, and they are often fueled by fear or anger. Reactions create trouble because they are reflexive rather than well thought-out. Emotions are normal, and it’s important to talk about them, but it’s best to do so in a calm atmosphere. Helping families develop skills to stay calm, fight fairly, and express support for one another mitigates reactivity and protects sustainable relationships.
3. Take the long view: There have been periods of unrest and hostility toward law enforcement before. It can feel like the stressful times will never end, but they have and will again. Agencies worldwide are working to build better relationships with the public. For families, learning the facts about officer safety, along with learning positive self-talk and self-soothing skills can reduce anxiety about the present.
4. Take the big view: Police often underestimate the support and respect they have in their communities. On the other hand, many communities could do a much better job of showing their support. There are examples of community support from all over the world—provide some positive examples and encourage families to share them with their children and post them on social media.
5. Use caution with social media and blogs: Advise families to limit the amount of time they and their children spend online. Provide resources to monitor what their children do on the Internet and how to help them think critically about what they read. Demonstrate Internet safety, including how to create strict privacy settings. Social media can be wisely used to distribute accurate, updated information and reduce isolation. Consider creating a private Facebook page for department families.
6. Teach self-care: It is hard to think clearly or make wise, healthy decisions when in a state of tension. Encourage families to pay attention to their bodies, particularly their breathing. Help them identify signs of stress. Exercise is the best medicine, so urge families to increase their activity. Normalize and encourage reaching out to friends, other family members, and culturally competent professionals who know what police officers do and why. Provide families with a list of available, confidential counseling resources.
7. Emphasize positivity: Talk about ways to be realistic, but positive. Help families find ways to deal constructively with negativity they might encounter. People often jump to conclusions before the facts are in. Point out to families that it is not their responsibility to defend, explain, or apologize for anyone else’s behavior. Encourage seeking out other law enforcement families for support, while at the same time suggesting putting a cap on “shop talk.” Encourage families to seek out hobbies, do volunteer work, try something different, and learn something new, all of which are known to build resilience and increase happiness.
8. Address children’s concerns: Parents may need assistance helping their children to distinguish between possibility and probability. It is possible that a law enforcement parent could get hurt on the job, but not probable, as most LEOs go to work and come home safely every day. Young children are most concerned with issues of separation and safety, while older kids, especially adolescents, are sensitive to being in the spotlight. Go over a list of signs or symptoms that a child might need professional help. Reassure parents that though they won’t have all the answers, listening carefully to children’s concerns and reassuring them that their feelings are normal are often enough. Suggest staying in touch more frequently than normal using technology and point out that children will react more to their parents’ emotional state than to whatever’s happening in the world around them.
Building stronger and more resilient families leads to stronger and more resilient officers who feel supported both at work and at home. By helping officers’ families cope with the stress and worries that accompany the experience of having a spouse, parent, or other family member in law enforcement, agencies can keep their officers healthier, safer, and better able to protect and serve.
1 Lorraine Green and Ellen Kirschman, On-line Education, Resources, and Support for Law Enforcement Families: Final Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2001).
2 These eight concepts are adapted from Ellen Kirschman, I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, revised ed. (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2006).