We know that being married to a law enforcement officer (LEO) has its challenges. But how does extended exposure to secondhand stress and trauma affect the children of LEOs?
Child Stress Research
According to a 2002 study led by Rudy Arredondo, law enforcement children “can develop traumatic stress vicariously” through watching and listening to their parents experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This exposure can cause symptoms such as hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, eating disorders and aggressive agitated behaviors. Children can even share the same memories or re-enact the LEO’s trauma by knowing that a traumatic event was experienced by the parent.
Barbara Nixon from the Urban Child Institute stated that high stress has been linked to emotional and behavior issues within children. Not helping children manage stress when they are young can lead to numerous health consequences later in life such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, relationship problems, etc.
Child stress researcher Hank Pellissier from the Brighter Brains Institute claimed children who experience high levels of stress are at risk of cognitive damage, because the child’s brains are not yet fully developed. Pellissier stated, “When a child experiences stress, the hypothalamus (above the brain stem) releases a hormone that rushes to the neighboring pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then mobilizes the production of a second hormone that swims via the bloodstream to adrenal glands above the kidneys. The adrenal glands activate adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline accelerates the child’s heart rate and elevates the blood pressure. Cortisol pumps up the blood sugar level, elevating the child’s muscle and memory power and boosting the pain threshold.”
Law Enforcement Parents
Law enforcement parents with prior training in stress management techniques after experiencing a traumatic event are less likely to transmit these symptoms to their children because they recognize their own stress responses. Not all children will experience or transfer their parents’ stress; however, it is something to beware of after a law enforcement parent experiences a traumatic event.
The law enforcement child will go through many different stages of acceptance of his/her parent’s law enforcement job depending on age and cognitive development. Openly communicating with your child is the best approach to helping relieve stress of the unknown. Fear of the unknown and worrying about a parent’s safety will affect a law enforcement child at some point.
Communication and speaking to a child with reassurances is often the stress relief a younger child needs. If your children are older, talk with them about the reality of the job, your training and safety equipment used such as your vest. Sometimes just an open dialogue with your teenager is the best approach to help him/her process fear and stress.
It is easy to see that law enforcement children can be worried about their parent’s safety when there are so many police television shows, violent police/criminal video games, police and crime-related news stories exposing and discussing the dangers of the job. Watching for signs of anxiety in a child when the law enforcement parent is preparing to go to work is a clue that the child is experiencing stress.
A child’s anxiety is displayed in many different behaviors such as sudden unprovoked crying, mean or angry talk (unusual for the child), or acting needy and clinging to the law enforcement parent getting ready to leave the home for work.
Children do not always articulate their fears in ways adults recognize; therefore, parents just need to watch for signs that their child might be having trouble processing feelings that are causing higher stress levels. Being proactive with family talks about law enforcement is a quality way to create a safe environment for the child to express his/her feelings with helpful guidance from parents.
In a law enforcement family, firearms and other police equipment are present in the home. Safety is always a concern with law enforcement families when it comes to duty weapons, your children and their visiting friends. There is less stress about law enforcement weapons when safety is discussed and role-modeling good firearms safety habits is witnessed at home.
You want young children to understand the reality of weapons and teach them respect for firearms without instilling fear or accidentally causing additional stress. That can be a tough balance when the children are younger, so law enforcement parents must use their judgment on when the time is right to have the firearms talk with your children.
Stress will affect the law enforcement family through their beloved LEO. This is normal, but when the stress is not managed, it can escalate to unhealthy habits and behaviors. Stress and witnessing human traumatic events is the nature of the law enforcement job, but the stress does not need to be consuming if you openly communicate and seek help if needed.
Recognizing Child Stress
Learning to recognize signs of stress in your loved ones is the first step to helping with the stress response. Children are no different when it comes to stress management. Everyone processes stressful events differently. Younger children just need help processing their feelings and help with stress management techniques. Parents can help the child’s process with guidance, reassurance and love.
According to psychologist Mary Alvord and David Palmiter a child stress can appear in physical symptoms such as a headache or stomach pain/aches. At school, if the child makes frequent trips to the nurse’s office, but otherwise appears healthy, this could be a sign that the child is having difficulty managing stress.
A healthy law enforcement family provides the stability and strength for the LEO to perform his/her sworn duty. The law enforcement home is the safe sanctuary of support and love, and it is the place to spend quality time enjoying the gift of family.
Managing stress brings balance to the demands of the career and family relations.