When your parent is a cop
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Some of our members have found themselves dealing not only with the stressors of the job, but fallout from it at home.
An 11-year-old girl can’t sleep at night until she hears her police officer father return home from his shift. A nine-year-old boy whose country cop dad was involved in a narrow escape during a critical incident becomes aggressive and emotional about small matters and withdraws from his family.
Childhood fears are a normal part of growing up – “monsters” under the bed, the sound of thunder or being sent to the principal’s office, for example – but fears that turn into ongoing anxiety can be upsetting for the whole family.
It’s an example of how policing doesn’t happen in isolation from family life.
Last year, a rural cop was involved in an incident where he was one-up on a country road in Waikato. He had spotted two cars in convoy, one of which had been reported as stolen and used in a burglary in which a firearm was taken.
Knowing those details, the officer put on his lights and siren, half expecting the suspects to flee, but the female driver in the stolen car did pull over and he got her out of the vehicle. As he did so, the male driver in the other car rammed the police vehicle and then attempted to run down the officer. “He was trying to hit me without hitting her.”
Fearing for his safety, the officer used his Glock to fire several shots at the vehicle, but with little effect. As he narrowly evaded the moving car, seeking shelter behind the stolen car, the woman was able to flee with her accomplice.
They were later arrested and the incident soon became a talking point. “Although it happened in a rural setting, after the volley of shots was fired, a kid started recording the incident on his phone. The kid’s grandfather could be heard yelling out my name and the video was posted on Facebook.”
In a small town, pretty soon everyone knew about what had happened and who was involved, with talk of the incident reaching the primary school and his kids.
He had Police-provided counselling after the incident, but his wife was also very upset and, after he mentioned that to Police, she was also offered help.
“Then we started noticing behaviour changes in our middle child. He was becoming aggressive and very emotional about things and not being truthful. He started to become anxious about when I was coming home and wanting to check in on me.
“I feel confident about looking after myself, and my wife tried to assure our son of that.
“The psychologist advised us to keep an eye on him and said the entire family should have had counselling at the time.
“He seems to be back to normal now, but it’s taken a year. It made me realise that when these incidents happen, Police needs to look after the whole family, not just the cop, and things have to be dealt with straight away.”
In the case of the 11-year-old daughter of a provincial road policing cop, there was no one incident that triggered her anxiety, but her mother recalls it seemed to start when she was about nine years old and found out that SRBA (stab-resistant body armour) vests are not bulletproof.
“She had previously expressed worries about that, but recently she has started asking, ‘Mum, do you worry when Dad is at work that he will get hurt?’, and, ‘What would we do if Dad got hurt at work?’
“When he leaves for work, she runs out to the car, saying, ‘Don’t die, Dad’. “We both tell her that he is going to be fine, that he can look after himself and that he has a personal alarm that he can use if he needs to and that he is very careful at work. In fact, he has never been seriously assaulted or come home with so much as a black eye.”
However, it’s proving to be of little comfort to her daughter, who told Police News: “It’s scary. I hear stories when he comes home and talks about what happens at work and what has happened to other people. I can’t sleep until I hear him come home and sometimes even after that. I can’t help worrying all the time. People say I should be a cop too, but I’d rather be a football player.”
She has been to see a counsellor at her school but says that hasn’t helped, partly because, “there are kids in my class who are the children of gang members and I worry that they will find out where I live and tell their parents and they’ll know where my dad lives”.
Such are the ongoing fears of this sensitive and intelligent girl whose teacher says she tends to overthink things.
“We’re still looking for answers,” says her mother.
As children and young people progress through school and life, they can’t help but be exposed to knowledge about real-world dangers – natural disasters, wars and criminal behaviours, including mass shootings.
Gently encouraging the child of a police officer to accept that their fears are unnecessary and that they can overcome them can be difficult in the face of well-publicised stories of police cars being rammed and officers being hurt.
Fears – real or imagined – can develop into more serious and entrenched anxiety disorders.
Psychologist Deborah Perrott, director of Lifespan Counselling and Rehab, notes that with the immediacy of global communications and access to social media, the lives of emergency service workers and first responders are more public than ever before.
“We can’t stop this communication,” she says, “so it’s more about how we manage this with our children.
Many factors can influence a child to develop anxiety as a response to an event, she says. For example, a child being more sensitive than their siblings, their personality, temperament, environment, support networks, attitudes and other stressors or experiences from the past.
“Children have many filters that can feed anxiety, such as how a message is delivered, what they hear, see and observe around them.”
If your child is not managing their anxiety, Dr Perrott says, early intervention and seeking professional help is important. “Learning strategies from a clinician leaves you the job of being a parent. You don’t need to wear a therapy hat, simply seek help and work on supporting your child’s progress.” (See Dr Perrott’s advice for parents on this page.)
Members can also seek help from Police welfare officers and the Employee Assistance Programme, 0800 327 669.
Dr Deborah Perrott’s advice for parents
Understanding the physiology of anxiety
During anxious moments, children don’t always hear what you have to say. They have a rapid flood of chemicals that brings physical responses in the body – the fight-flight response used for survival. The logical part of the brain ceases to function as well and the automated emotional part starts firing.
Calming your child physiologically is important. Calm breathing can help achieve this.
Timing and managing your child’s anxiety is key
We need to be calm and in a good head space to, firstly, settle the child in a confident way. Then we can respond most effectively. We can underestimate the impact that our own stress can have on a child. We need to be aware to put aside other stressors to be present. Listen, and empathise. Your child wants you to “get it”.
Anxiety is actually okay and a normal part of being a human
It’s when there’s too much anxiety operating, or too often, that it’s uncomfortable. Anxiety is helpful as an “alarm bell” for children – a “warning” that something may not be comfortable. In fact, some children have too little anxiety, which means being a couch potato! We all need a certain amount to get up and get going.
Teach your child to identify with what makes them anxious
Work through logical solutions and helpful thought challenges. For example, “Yes, Dad’s job means he chases baddies, but most often he does this with another police officer”, and, “Yes, that did happen, but Mum is fine and has managed this okay.” You are modelling to the child that anxiety can be managed and that thoughts can be worked with to be more helpful.
Gently encourage mini goals that lead to the bigger goal. When each mini goal is comfortable for the child, check in and see if they are ready for the next mini step. Allowing your child to “give it a go” and take “safe risks” are great principles. For example, trying a new food or sport. This encourages confidence, assertiveness and adaptability.
Reinforce the small gains
Look for the good in your child and reinforce this behaviour. Not only does the child respond well to this, but also, as a parent, you start to focus on the positives.