Living Through Troubled Times: An Open Letter To Police Families by Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D. adapted from the forthcoming second edition of I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know (anticipated date of publication 2018). Feel free to download and share this excerpt, but please provide the appropriate credit.
These are troubled times for police officers and their families. There's an almost endless stream of bad press about law enforcement along with the unthinkable assassinations of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, numerous anti-police protests, lethal mass shootings, and the increased threat of terrorism. Dash cams, body cameras and cell phone cameras have charged the atmosphere and changed the way officers work. In light of all that is happening, the job looks more dangerous and appears more brutal than ever.
I've been counseling police officers and their families for thirty years, through good times and bad. This letter and the ideas offered is my way to say thank you to police families everywhere.
•Distinguish between what you can control and what you can't.
My colleagues at the First Responders' Support Network (FRSN.ORG) use a donut to model the distinction between what you can and can't control. In the donut hole are the things you control; your beliefs, your actions, your thoughts, your ethics and your professionalism. This is not as easy as it may sound. We humans have difficulty changing behaviors, breaking bad habits, and quieting the almost constant chatter in our heads that tells us things should be different from how they are and we should be different from how we are.
The donut itself represents our sphere of influence. Influence is different from control. Our ability to influence others depends on how well we communicate and how skillfully we can negotiate relationships.
Outside the donut is the great wide world of things and people that affect us deeply but over which, no matter how much we wish it was otherwise, we have little or no control. This is a tough one for cops to understand. Policing is all about control, control of people, situations and emotions. Cops have to believe that they can establish control or they couldn't do the job society asks them to do. It's a necessary belief, but sadly it's not always realistic. Cops don't control their chiefs, their politicians, the media or public opinion. They can influence, but not control.
• Respond, don't react.
Our reactions tend to be emotional, immediate, intense and often fueled by fear or anger (anger being a secondary emotion. If you dig around in your anger you'll likely find fear or hurt.) Reactions create trouble for ourselves and the people around us because they are reflexive rather than well thought out. After the tragic murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, families and officers universally reacted with increased fears about safety. These fears are normal. It's important to talk about them, discuss your concerns with each other, your children and other LEO spouses. Be vigilant, but not hyper-vigilant. Be patient with yourself and your loved ones. Listen, rather than react. Home is the one place no one should have to put on a brave face. Do not make any decisions out of fear. Do what you can to support each other even when you see things differently. Determine what each of you need at this time and how best to provide it. If there was ever a time to put family first, this is it.
•Take the long view: We have been through periods of unrest and hostility towards law enforcement before. Right now, it feels like the bad times will never end, but they have and they will again. While it may be cold comfort, the reality is that despite the recent police tragedies, policing is safer than ever with fewer law enforcement homicides.
Change takes time, sometimes generations. And it happens on many fronts. Short of a cataclysmic event there is rarely any single person, institution, or action that can generate big societal changes. Uniform services, in general, are bound by tradition and often resistant to change. There are many changes taking place in these tumultuous times and more to come in the future. Whether it's something new or something disturbing, ask yourself, will this matter in five hours, five days, five years? If so how and over what part of the change do you have control? Then go look at a donut.
•Take the big view: Police routinely underestimate the support and respect they have in their communities. On the other hand, communities could do a much better job of showing their support. Once-a-year award banquets given by civic organizations are nice, but cops need community support on a daily basis. There is evidence that this is happening all over the country. Spontaneous memorials, post-it notes left on patrol cars, food, flowers, letters, free hugs and donations of money are in the news. Along with all the bad news, there are countless examples of how communities are stepping up. Look for these examples, share them with your kids, post them on Pinterest or FB. Start something yourself. The point is to stay positive and realistic. Avoid the doomsayers and fear mongers.
•Use caution with social media and blogs
Fanning the flames of despair is the never ending noise of social media demanding to know are you with us or against us, as if there is no middle way and a person can belong only in one camp. Anecdotes, personal opinions, politics and an array of competing, sometimes biased, sets of statistics get presented as objective facts. If you just can't stay away (I know it's hard), limit the amount of time you and your children spend on-line. Monitor what your children do on the Internet and help them think critically about what they read. Set strict privacy settings on all your accounts.
•Pay attention to your body
If you feel yourself tensing up or notice that you are breathing more rapidly and less deeply, put down the newspaper, turn off the TV, unplug from your computer, end the conversation. When there is time to think, which is most of the time, bear in mind that it is hard think clearly or make wise, wholesome decisions for yourself or your family, when you are in a state of tension. Take a breath. Take several. Go for a walk. Call a trusted friend.
•Stay connected and be prepared
Retired LEO and FRSN peer support coordinator, Nick Turkovich, warns against isolating. Talk to your families and friends about how this seemingly unending stream of bad news makes you feel. But remember, people who are intimately involved in law enforcement see things differently from the general public. Some of your friends and family might not understand about deadly force or other police procedures. Be prepared for ignorant questions and try not to over react when they come. Be patient. Expect people to ask dumb questions. Most do so because they are uninformed, not malicious. On the other hand, it's perfectly okay to end a conversation you don't want to have. The trick is to do it without starting a fight. If you are normally not assertive, learn some techniques of assertion.
Some cops do bad things. They represent a tiny fraction of the nearly 900,000 American law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, they cast shame over the whole profession, making every officer's job harder. While people will and do jump to conclusions before the facts are in, it's not your responsibility to defend, explain, or apologize for anyone's behavior just because he or she is a cop. Do not let anyone assume that as a law enforcement family you don't understand the broader issues that trouble our country or that you have written anyone off.
Seek out other law enforcement families for support but try to put a cap on the shop talk that inevitably comes up. Don't neglect hobbies. Do something different, learn something new. Be realistic, but stay positive. In troubled times, this is your biggest challenge.
• Take a break. Hold things lightly.
Police spouse Gina Bamberger offers this advice: "In the wake of the sadness and heartache of these last few weeks, I want to remind my pals to look to the simple things in life to find peace. Watching a toddler wobble around like a drunken sailor, making eye contact and sharing a smile with someone, enjoying that breeze that caresses the back of your neck just when you need a little relief from the heat. Hugging a friend who loves you for exactly who you are, and watching a garden grow!"
I'd add that exercise is the best medicine. Go to the gym, take a walk, or get out in nature. Try to have fun. It is not disloyal. If you need professional help, find a culturally competent therapist or chaplain who knows what cops do and why.
Police psychologists Dr. Katherine McMann and Dr. Sara Garrido suggest helping children distinguish between possibility and probability. It's possible that Mom or Dad could get hurt on the job, but not probable. Remind them that almost a million cops go to work and come home safely every day. Show them your protective gear and tell them about the training you go through. If you haven't already done so, take them to the police station, let them sit in a patrol car, introduce them to the 911 dispatchers who are your lifelines.
Young children are most concerned with issues of separation and safety. Older kids, especially adolescents are sensitive to being in the spotlight. Help them know what to say in response to taunts they might get at school. Identify adults they can turn at school or when you're not around.
Keep to a normal routine. Encourage talking (or writing or drawing) about their fears and problem solve as a family. Make sure your children's understanding of events is accurate. Be honest and give them only as much age-appropriate information as they can tolerate without become frightened. Listen carefully. Don't try to address your child's concerns before you understand them. Accept that you won't have all the answers. It is often enough to offer reassurance that, under the circumstances, their feelings of anger, sadness, and fear are normal.
Dr. Marla Friedman, police psychologist, recommends increasing family time and one-on-one time with the law enforcement parent. She advocates using technology like Face time or Skype during your work shift to reassure your children that you are safe.
Finally, try to stay on an even keel. Your children are likely to imitate the way you are coping and will react more to your emotional state than to whatever's happening in the world around them.
Thanks to my colleagues at the First Responder's Support Network, to Dr Katherine McMann and Dr. Sara Garrido of Nicoletti-Flater Associates and to Dr. Marla Friedman for their ideas.