When someone chooses to become a law enforcement officer they are committing to a lifestyle as much as they are a career. Officers and their partners and spouses are conscious of the sacrifices that come with walking the thin blue line, and they enter into it knowingly. However, the same cannot be said for the children of officers, who are often born into a law enforcement family and grow up with a unique set of experiences.
These children learn crucial life lessons at a young age. They watch as their parent suits up before a shift, and they learn the importance of selflessness and service to others—especially in troubled times. They learn earlier than most that there are dangerous and evil elements in the world and come to understand that it is their parent’s job to engage the danger and respond to the evil.
Children of law enforcement officers also have to shoulder a complex set of emotions and perspectives. They likely view their parent as a good person whose daily life is spent protecting and serving others in a heroic and noble manner. Yet they must balance that perception with certain portrayals of policing as unjust, corrupt, or simply ineffective. They are also forced to live with an expectation that they are somehow immune to the missteps of youth because they are the child of an officer. In short, they are often held to higher behavioral standards than other kids while having to exist in a unique emotional space where their law enforcement parent’s commitment to sacrifice and stress becomes their sacrifice as well.
There is not much written about the challenges that members of law enforcement face when rearing children, and even less that captures what it is like to be the child of an officer. However, in Keys to Successful Parenting for Police Officers, retired police officer Betsy Smith offers the following tips:
- Do not get so wrapped up in saving the world that you forget what (and who) is at home. The tragedies you see at work every day can make your children’s problems seem small, but to them, they’re huge. Empathize, listen to them, and try to put yourself in their world.
- Do not set standards so high that they are impossible to meet. It is no secret that cops tend to think catastrophically, but sometimes you need to take a step back. Are you always demanding perfection in your child’s behavior? If your kid is starting to rebel, have you asked yourself (and them) why?
- Use the job as a teaching tool. Try not to shelter children of appropriate ages from uncomfortable facts about things you’ve seen; engage them in conversation. Try not to issue any ultimatums, but rather use those times to talk about things like date rape, drug and alcohol use, and other uncomfortable but necessary topics. That open line of communication is essential when you’re trying to navigate the teen years as a parent.
- Don’t overreact. There’s a very good chance your kid might get into a bit of trouble, or even a lot of trouble, at one time or another. Make sure your response is reasonable and appropriate. This is one area off the job where your police tactics and training may pay off. Prepare ahead of time, just in case. Mentally rehearse how you’ll react when you get some bad news about your kid’s behavior. Practice using your tactical breathing to gain control of your emotions and use your experience to recall all of the stupid things you’ve seen otherwise “good” kids do. Make sure the punishment really does fit the crime, and when dealing with the responding officer, treat them how you’d like to be treated if it was you issuing the citation.
- Support your kid: Be a parent first, and a cop second. “Supporting” your kid, however, does not mean getting them out of trouble. Even if you know a responding officer, use that inside scoop to gain information on how to treat your child.
- Don’t make it all about you. When our kids get in trouble, it’s immediately going to be seen as a reflection on us. People are going to judge our parenting, our values, and sometimes even our skill as a cop. It doesn’t help to scream things like “You’ve embarrassed me! How could you have done this to me? How am I going to show my face at work after this?” That kind of reaction only reinforces to your family that your job is more important than they are.
- You do not always have to win. On the street, coming out on the losing end of a conflict simply is not an option. At home, the challenge is to recognize that the dominance you must display on patrol to remain safe and protect others is not always the best approach. When working through challenges at home, try to focus on managing the situation into compliance. Make certain that your child understands what is expected and how their actions were inconsistent with expectations, and let them know what you anticipate from their behavior going forward.
Being a parent is difficult and being a law enforcement officer is difficult, and those together can lead to many stressful moments and strained relationships. If you practice empathy and patience with both of these challenges, you will find that it will pay huge dividends in the long run.
Resources for Further Reading
Effects of the Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster