Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD
HOW TO TALK TO FIRST RESPONDER KIDS ABOUT SCARY TIMES
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
First Responder families seem to always be coming in and out of challenging times. Things can be scary for our kids and hard to make sense of what's going on around them, why their first responder parent is suddenly gone more often, why everyone around them is showing more concern and stress.
As an adult, we also have a hard time managing our own feelings and stress about the job and we've been around for awhile. This can be even more challenging for our kids who often only get half the story. Even when they don't have the details, kids pick up on stress within the household. They hear things (way more than you think). They see things on the news. People outside the family say things to them or around them that you don't hear. Sometimes other kids say things to your kids that they heard their family say at home. In summary, we can't control everything they are picking up on as much as we'd like to.
Our kiddos pick up on what they can talk to you about and what they shouldn’t bring up based on how you approach or ignore topics. Our first responder kids are going to have to adjust to and process incoming information all throughout their lifetime (Read more about being an L.E. kid here). I want them to know they can talk to their parents about this to make more sense of it. I want them to have a safe space (home) where they can process the world around them. I want you to be more in control of their view of the world.
Here are 5 TIPS on how to discuss hard topics with your first responder kid.
CREATE SPACE FOR THEM TO SHARE (regularly). You can do this by having a routine time of day when you ask them things like what’s on their mind, how they are doing, what they are worried about, and what they have heard other people say. Don’t give them answers just yet. You are “Creating space” for them to express and explore whatever is in their head. Make sure it’s when you’re calm, relaxed, and not in a hurry. Some kids will come right out and ask questions on their own, but a lot of kids will catch on to what their parents don’t want to discuss and never bring it up. This leaves them with envisioning the worst case scenario or not being able to make sense of things.
VALIDATE THEIR FEELINGS. Let them know you understand where they are coming from, why they might think that or feel that way. Let them know that you have similar thoughts or feelings if you do. No one wants to be told they shouldn’t feel a certain way or that they are wrong. (Continue to hold off on correcting them or providing answers).
CLARIFY FACTS. After you validate their feelings and make them feel supported. THEN you can jump in and fill in some gaps of information they may be missing and help them better understand. Do NOT overload their little brains. Keep it simple and age appropriate (different ages deserve different levels of information). Don’t be pressured into having ALL the answers. It’s OK to say, “That’s a really good question! But, I don’t know.” Remember, even though kids have adult questions doesn't always mean they are ready to actually process adult answers... if it's not developmentally appropriate it could be more harmful than helpful.
REASSURE THEM. It’s important to reassure our kids and let them know they are safe or that we are safe. However, don’t be unrealistically reassuring. Instead of saying “Nothing is ever going to happen to daddy he’s safe.” You can focus on all the safety measures your officer parent takes at work to stay safe. Training, safety equipment and gear, partners/team members, not doing things alone, and the fact that they have a whole team of people who all do their best to protect one another etc.
DISCUSS COPING SKILLS. We all need ways to manage big feelings when they come up (Here's even more reasons why first responder families need them). Talk about what you do when you feel worried or nervous or sad, in child terms (read more about a spouse's self care). Brainstorm with your kid some things they can do when they are down to get through the day. Make a list. Come up with a code word they can communicate to you if they are having a big feeling. Then you can support them engaging in one of those coping skills listed. Some ideas are blowing bubbles (which mimics deep breathing), reading a favorite story, playing a favorite game, drawing, journaling etc. (read about more ways to calm your child down here). Basically things that distract them and move them into a more positive emotional space.
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS: Reduce intake of information for first responder kids through media, the news, friends, family, open discussions about work. They are listening, even if they look like they are playing something else or in the other room.
If you'd like some help and more parent consultation around how to support your kids reach out to to me here. I am a child and family psychologist that specializes in supporting first responder families. I can serve any resident of California.