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Supporting Family & Children of Law Enforcement Officers

NASW article
The following article, by our own Sarah Buehner, MSW, LCSW, appears in the NASW  (National Association of Social Workers) Summer 2015 Newsletter.

Sarah earned her MSW from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University and holds her LCSW in the state of Missouri. Here at LFCS, Sarah provides school-based counseling services to teens in St. Louis.  She can be contacted at SarahB@lfcs.org

 

The 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri, have been a catalyst for our country to closely examine the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and as with any significant event, emotions have run high—throughout our nation—as we all struggle with how to move
forward. A lot of work must be done to ensure that minorities and people of color are not systematically discriminated against in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems; it may even take a long time for minorities and people of color to build trust in law enforcement.

Throughout the United States, many people are angry at law enforcement, and officers have at times become the targets of this anger. As the wife of a law enforcement officer and as a social worker, I am also keenly aware of the toll that Ferguson and recent related events have taken on police families. The daily life of a police family is constantly hectic, stressful, and unpredictable, as officers often work long, erratic hours and come come stressed and exhausted. As with other first responders, police officers are frequently exposed to potentially life-threatening and traumatic situations; as social workers, we are well aware of the effects that trauma can have on families and children. For police officers, even a minor traffic stop triggers a limbic fight-or-flight response, as that officer has no idea if the person they pulled over is angry, hostile, or carrying a weapon.

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, (www.nleomf.org) between 2008 and 2014, close to 1,000 law enforcement officers have lost their lives while on duty in the United States. When my husband leaves for work, the thought crosses my mind that he might not come home.  Life post-Ferguson has exacerbated this stress for police families. Even more than before, officers are on “high alert,” a condition that impacts the daily life and stress levels of police families and children.

Children of law enforcement have also become targets of anger and bullying by peers at school, or they may be acting out as a result of absorbing trauma and stress from the family system.  Spouses and family members may also feel angry, anxious, and afraid that their loved one will not make it home from work. Police spouses often feel overburdened with home responsibilities and child rearing, as the schedule of a police officer is often erratic and unpredictable. Add all of these factors together with stress and trauma, and it is no wonder that police families have such a high divorce rate.  As police officers and other law enforcement officials are a part of every community we serve, we, as social workers, undoubtedly will interact with police officers, their children, spouses, or other loved ones.

From my experience as a clinical social worker and police wife, I have a few suggestions for how social workers can help these children and family members as they deal with the stress, trauma, and other effects of being part of a police family.

BACK TO BASICS:
• Active Listening 101: Listen, validate, reflect. Modeling active listening can also teach police families healthy ways to communicate.

• Empathy: A lot of criticism is being directed at police and law enforcement right now (and in many cases, rightly so), and it can be harder to empathize and humanize with others who are in the hot seat. Along with the criticism and challenges, police and law enforcement are still exposed to high levels of trauma and stress, and police families still feel the effects. Empathy is such a healing force—there is so much power in feeling heard and understood.

FOR SPOUSES AND ADULT FAMILY MEMBERS:
• Teach the importance of selfcare, and help the family member find a way to prioritize it as well as balance it with other responsibilities.  Self-care is an investment in the family—by taking care of ourselves, we are better able to care for others.

• Educate about trauma, stress, and the limbic response, and how to manage these symptoms through self-care and healthy lifestyle choices.

• Educate about the ways kids and family members may be affected by their officer’s trauma and stress, and how the family member can help the family cope through positive communication and prioritizing quality time as a family.

• Help the family member understand the importance of having a support system and how seeking support from family, peers, or the local  Police Wives’ Association can help.

• Help the family member build a support system, if desired.

• Educate about counseling—as with the military, there is a stigma associated with counseling in the law enforcement community. Focus on destigmatizing counseling, and show how helpful it can be for individuals, families, and couples.

• Not in front of the kids! Encourage family members to set boundaries with what children/teens are exposed to. Law enforcement officers may “vent” about their day to family or a partner, but often kids (even teens) are not able to process some of the traumatic events that the officer has experienced. Limiting this exposure may also limit the child’s acting out behaviors or anxieties.

• Limit exposure to “triggers,” like the news or violent TV shows.

• If an adult is harassed for being related to law enforcement, coach him or her on how to de-escalate a situation. Encourage him or her to focus on safety, not defending their family member. Help him or her understand that verbal or physical arguments rarely solve a conflict.

• If someone harasses or bullies a child, coach the family member on healthy ways to talk with the child/teen to process the situation, and remind the child of the importance of safety. Validate for the child/teen that many people are angry and frustrated currently, and they aren’t sure how to process or respond to these feelings.  Emphasize that fighting verbally or physically will not solve the problem; it only increases the conflict.

• If a child is acting out, educate the parent or caregiver on how children respond to family stress and/or trauma.  Reframe this “acting out” as an opportunity to help the child, as children who act out often lack the skills to manage their emotions. Encourage the parent/caregiver to seek ongoing counseling or support for helping the child to learn healthier ways to cope.

• Remember to be age appropriate. What you say to a 3-year-old will be very different than what you say to a 12-year-old—and even more different than what you say to a 16-year-old. A lot of people try to “shield” their children from talking about Ferguson or police-related topics, but this rarely works.  Even my 3-year-old hears about police officers at school or from adults she is around, and when the riots in Ferguson happened, she was asking about “daddy helping with the fires.” Be age appropriate but give children a safe space to talk, share their perspectives, and ask questions.

• Middle or high school students are old enough to learn about trauma, stress, and the limbic response.  Help them learn about how their body and mind react to these things and what they can do about it.

• Kids need support, too. You can help a child/teen learn about the importance of support.

• Teach about SELF-CARE!!!  Kids need positive activities to manage their emotions and stress as well.

• Talk with kids about any bullying or harassment they may have experienced for having a police parent.  Process with that child how they responded, and coach him or her on conflict resolution and staying safe.

• Assess for hobbies/extracurricular activities to help the child manage stress and have an outlet where they don’t have to worry about mom, dad, or any stresses at home.

• Teach kids about asking for help, and destigmatize counseling in order to minimize barriers to asking for help later, if needed.