Supporting the Children of First Responders: Emotional care, Vicarious Trauma and the Fear of Death
Vicarious trauma, or the trauma experienced by individuals who were not physically present at an event, can be experienced by the family members of first responders even if they do not share the reasons they had a difficult day at work. Because our brains are designed to fill in information when it is lacking, the children of first responders may:
imagine bad things happening to their parent whenever they go to work
assume critical incident work stress is the fault of the child
feel stress or anxiety because they cannot predict their parents mood
It is normal for all children to have a fear of death, especially those aged 6-8. The fear of a first responder parent dying is something that is normal at any age level. Stress caused by the very real dangers first responders encounter is compounded by additional anxiety caused by long hours and intense schedules.
After a line of duty death, first responders can experience intense feelings of grief and survivor guilt. Line of duty deaths or injuries can make first responders more acutely aware of the dangers of their job. This is also true for the children of first responders. When a parent is stressed or experiencing symptoms due to critical incident trauma, children may be refrain from telling their parents about their fears.
How can you support your children after a critical incident or in line of duty death?
Care for yourself first. Taking care of mind, body and spirit after a difficult event is the most important thing that you can do for your children and family. If your family knows that you are taking care of yourself, they will worry less. This may include getting some cardio (studies show this is the most effective thing for critical incident stress), talking to someone (peer support, mental health professionals, chaplains, etc) or wellness activities (being in nature, listening to music, eating and sleeping well, etc). Taking care of yourself in response to a line of duty death may also include updating your health directives and will and/or making your funeral wishes known to your faith leader or family.
Communicate to your children that something happened at work and that any anger, grumpiness or irritability you experience is not their fault. When something hard happens it may be difficult to talk about it, especially if the details are confidential or unable to be released. Some first responder families have a signal that communicates to their family that something hard happened that they cannot talk about. One example is turning a designated fridge magnet upside down when you are having a very hard time. Or, turning the magnet sideways when things are not as bad. This allows your family to know that your stress is not their fault or may signal that you need extra support and care.
Communicate your needs. Sometimes we need to be left alone for awhile. Other times we want cuddles and to be close to our family. Sometimes we need to do something physical or vent. It is really hard for kids to understand why our needs change and how to adapt. If you are aware of your preferences, communicate them to your family. For example, if you need to be alone for a certain amount of time after work let your family know the number of minutes they should wait before talking to you when you enter the house. If you need touch, but no talking, let your family know. If there are things your family can do to show their care (like drawing a bath, cooking your favorite meal, getting your favorite sweater, etc), let them know. Kids really like having a tangible task they can do when things are hard.
Ask your children how they feel about your work as a first responder. Take some time every week to check in with your children about how they are feeling. Specifically ask them about their fears, stress and what they worry about. When they share their feelings, ask questions to better understand. Do not try to talk them out of their fears, simply listening to them without reacting negatively is often enough to help ease many of their fears.
Encourage your children to complete the steps outlined above.
Talk to your children in age appropriate ways about death and what would happen if you died. Conversations about death are similar to conversations about puberty, it's better to ask the questions your child has then to talk about everything you think they might need to know. Some parents may talk to their children about how their faith (or not) affects their view of death. If you children are older, you may want to tell your children where your will is located. Asking your child questions about what they think about death can help you begin the conversation. Parenting magazine created a guide you may find helpful: How to talk to your children about death, step by step.
Mightier is a video game system developed by Harvard and the Boston Children's Hospital that uses biofeedback (a heartrate monitor) to help kids learn how to become aware of their emotions and learn emotional regulation skills. My kids love the videogames, which are designed to elevate their heartrates. The more the child becomes stressed, the harder the game gets (a bit like real life). In order to continue playing the game, the child has to calm down using methods the game teaches them. The goal of Mightier is for children to practice emotional regulation enough to form good habits. This game requires a subscription that also comes with one-on-one coaching to help you support your child. You can learn more about Mightier at https://www.mightier.com
The Rev. Dr. Megan Rohrer, (DMin) is the Community Chaplain Coordinator for the San Francisco Police Department and has extensive training in emergency management, critical incident stress and trauma care. Chaplain Rohrer is the parent of a 6 and 8 year old and also has a certificate in early childhood education.