By Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff, Program Director, School Counseling, American Military University
It is no surprise that first responders encounter high levels of stress in their careers. They endure long hours and shift work, unpredictable situations, critical incidents involving exposure to trauma, public criticism and inherent dangers that occur in their line of work. The stress of the job is not isolated to responders and often impacts their spouse and even their children.
Children and adolescents are not immune to stress associated with their parent’s work and sometimes, this stress can interfere with their daily lives. When stress becomes excessive and intrusive, a child might have difficulty focusing in school or may begin acting out. If this becomes the case, counseling is an option first responder families should consider.
Challenges children of first responders experience
The demands of long hours and shift work often mean responders miss holidays, milestones in their children’s lives and special events. It can be difficult for a child to understand why their parent misses these important activities and they may also feel disappointed if a shift interferes with an awards ceremony or championship game. Balancing opposing schedules and sacrificing valuable family time can lead to stress for everyone in the family unit.
Children may also worry about their parent as they know being a first responder is a dangerous job. In a recent conversation, elementary school counselor Teresa Jordan shared that although children of first responders are typically well-adjusted, she commonly helps them cope with fears of their parent dying or being injured. In addition, when watching the daily news or using social media platforms, it is not uncommon for children to see stories about firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, police officers and other first responders. Overexposure to these stories can increase the anxiety a child may have about their parent’s safety.
In some cases, if the responder parent exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS), children may also begin to exhibit symptoms. A child does not have to experience trauma firsthand in order to experience what is referred to as secondary or vicarious trauma. Whether the child experiences typical worries or more severe symptoms of distress, counseling is a viable option to help children develop healthy coping skills.
Benefits of children’s counseling
Counseling can be beneficial for children of first responders in various ways. When provided with a non-judgmental, accepting, safe environment, children and adolescents can open up and talk about what they are feeling and experiencing. Even when parents have developed open lines of communication and a positive relationship with their child, there are times children and adolescents will shelter parents from difficult emotions for fear of adding stress to the situation. In some cases, they may internalize the stress because they believe it is their fault. Having a neutral person to confide in can help the child or adolescent address their feelings without fear of contributing to more stress in the family.
Counselors can lead sessions to help children develop coping skills, learn techniques to decrease anxiety, build a social support network and identify/use personal strengths. There are multiple options for receiving support including individual counseling, group counseling, or family counseling. Depending on the age of the child and the presenting problems and needs, families may choose to seek support from a school counselor or a counselor outside of school.
School counselors are available to help students cope with stress and share social and emotional concerns. Group counseling is one service they provide, which typically involves identifying children and adolescents with similar needs and meeting with them in a group setting. Children of first responder families can benefit from a group counseling approach as it creates a unique social support network focused on common challenges and strengths, which can help build resilience to stress. Group counseling capitalizes on the increasing influence of friends during middle childhood and adolescence; it provides a space for children to relate to one another and share similar experiences. Feeling understood and finding a place where they belong may also benefit children who receive negative comments about first responders from their peers.
Counseling outside of school
Counseling outside the school setting is also beneficial, particularly when more severe symptoms of anxiety or PTSD are present. Some children may prefer attending counseling outside of school because they worry about the perception of their peers. Counselors can teach children relaxation strategies and mindfulness techniques that can be used at home or in school. In situations involving younger children, including those who haven’t started school, Registered Play Therapists (RPTs) use play to help children express themselves and work through problems. This developmentally appropriate approach to counseling can help young children in first responder families with anger management, grief/loss and coping with anxiety.
Whether in school or out of school, both individual and group counseling sessions provide a welcoming space for children to discuss worries and share experiences unique to being in a first responder family. The stress of responding affects the entire family, so seeking out professional help is not only beneficial for the responder, but for the children as well.
About the author
Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff is program director and professor of School Counseling at American Public University System. She earned a B.S. in Psychology at Fayetteville State University, M.Ed. in School Counseling at Campbell University and Ed.D. in Counseling Psychology at Argosy University/Sarasota. She is a licensed mental health counselor (WA), national certified counselor, national certified school counselor and has a school counseling certification in Washington State. Her research interests include military children and families, suicide prevention, neuroscience, and child and adolescent mental health/wellness. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.