by Erin Craw, Ph.D.
First responder families are unique and face different challenges than non-first responder families typically do. The family members of a first responder not only experience some of the effects of the job but play a role in the first responder’s ability to cope and manage stress. Because families are interdependent and a vital source of social support, and first responders have demanding jobs that can often spill over into the family, effective communication is particularly crucial. Engaging in communication about the job and the needs of all family members early on can help cultivate norms of flexibility and openness.
Fueled by Flexibility
Given the demanding nature of first responder careers, family plans and schedules are rarely set in stone. Instead, there is a need for a shared understanding that the time, place, and even dates (e.g., Christmas celebrations on the 27th) may have to be changed to accommodate the first responder’s schedule. Those with a family member who might be in a particularly demanding role or require them to be on call often might constantly need to reschedule or experience their loved one leaving plans to return to work. Sometimes, the first responder’s role can interrupt or interfere with other family members’ plans or routines. Establishing a sense of flexibility early on for children is essential to avoid adverse outcomes such as resentment. To demonstrate this understanding, parents may need to directly discuss the demanding nature of the job and how important it is that their loved one goes to help others, and that the time together may look different than initially planned. Still, it will be just as much, if not more remarkable, when they can attend the next family event. Explaining to children that a cancellation or delay in plans is purely a reflection of the fact that somewhere in the community, someone needs help, and our family members can help them will help prevent some upset. When these instances do arise, finding alternative times or activities is especially critical for everyone to still have that time together. Whether it is a soccer game, dance recital, graduation, or holiday, it is crucial to have a level of openness and be flexible with any needed changes. Without communicating the need for flexibility to accommodate the demands of the first responder career, family members may feel as though they are being neglected or forgotten about. Families fueled by flexibility will be better able to navigate transitions and other challenges.
There are several types of transitions that first responder families may experience in which communication becomes increasingly important. One common transition that is important to consider is the transition home after work. Returning home following a shift can be overwhelming. While their partner might need help with preparing dinner or other chores, and their child might need help with their history homework, it is imperative for families to make a plan for the first responder’s transition home. For instance, make a rule that mom or dad needs 30 minutes to decompress upstairs alone before they join the family. If you do not have something in place to ensure a smooth transition, approaching your partner or even parent to create an action plan can help minimize the potential for familial tension, frustration, and resentment. You can start the conversation by asking the first responder what they think they need to feel more relaxed after their shift. Sometimes first responders feel disconnected from the family following a shift. Perhaps, they responded to an especially traumatic call or are experiencing organizational stress. Dr. Gilmartin (2002)1 explains that first responders experience the hypervigilance biological rollercoaster in which the individual is at a high level of hypervigilance at work and then in an opposite state upon their return home (e.g., tired, disengaged, isolated). Discussing what to do to be supportive on those days is vital to ensure the first responder has space to unwind and that the rest of the family understands it is not personal. Instead of becoming frustrated with the family member being quiet or distant, the conversation is focused on how they need time and space first to be more present. Simply ignoring or resenting such detachment can lead to more significant unresolved conflict and cause additional stress on the entire family. Take the time to discuss what family members can do to work together on those days before they happen.
Transitions might also be life events such as the birth of a child or becoming a caregiver for elderly parents – roles may shift, and additional tasks might arise. For example, older siblings may have to take on extra chores and help babysit while the first responder is at work. As family members take on new roles, discussing the importance of assisting and maintaining self-care is essential. Another type of transition that can also relate to shifts in roles and norms at home is when the first responder changes rank or divisions. At some point in their careers, they may spend more time at home, which can be a significant transition, especially when the other parent or partner has already established a routine and set of rules for doing certain functions. To navigate transitions effectively, families must determine what support is needed. Often, people view support as simply letting the person know that “they are there for them.” However, there are several ways in which family members can provide needed support.
First responders may not always be willing to disclose the difficult and traumatic experiences they have on the job directly. In fact, prior research (e.g., Davidson & Moss, 2008; Regehr et al., 2005)2,3 has demonstrated that first responders are often hesitant to disclose a mental health-related concern or work-related stress because they are concerned about negatively impacting their families. Therefore, inquiring about what support is needed is critical to cultivating a supportive home environment. Similarly, family members of first responders should discuss what they need regarding social support.
Understanding Social Support
There is no single best way to provide social support to your first responder family. Instead, the best practice is to recognize that there are several types of social support, and how it is provided should be based on the needs of the individual. Again, flexibility is important because the needs of family members are dynamic. Consider the following types of support when having such discussions.
Informational – One critical type of support that families of first responders can provide is informative, which involves understanding what is available regarding culturally competent resources. Knowing where your first responder family member can go for additional care that is confidential and trauma-informed is critical in providing support. Another extremely important aspect of informational support is the family members educating themselves about first responder culture and physiological responses to stress and trauma. The more the family understands these aspects of the job, the better they will be able to manage expectations and provide support.
Emotional – In providing emotional support, family members can reiterate that they are available for the first responder to talk to at any time. Reiterating that you can be a nonjudgmental sounding board whenever they want to share or vent can be especially helpful for a romantic partner.
Tangible – Family members might pack a meal and assist with household chores and tasks to provide tangible support.
Overall, the goal is to identify what type of support might be most needed and have the awareness to ask for a different type of support when needs are not being met. While communication is critical in first responder families, discussing these topics takes work. Family members struggling to prompt the conversation may start with “what can I do to support you right now?” By initiating this dialogue, families will have a pathway to developing a shared understanding of flexibility and each other’s changing needs. Consistent check-ins with each other will ensure that all members are receiving and providing support effectively to navigate the distinct challenges of a first responder career.
1. Gilmartin, K. M. (2002). Emotional survival for law enforcement. E-S Press.
2. Davidson, A. C., & Moss, S. A. (2008). Examining the trauma disclosure of police officers to their partners and officers’ subsequent adjustment. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 27(1), 51–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927×07309511
3. Regehr, C., Dimitropoulos, G., Bright, E., George, S., & Henderson, J. (2005). Behind the brotherhood: Rewards and challenges for wives of firefighters. Family Relations, 54(3), 423–435. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2005.00328.x
About the Author
Erin Craw, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in communication from Chapman University in Southern California with an emphasis in health and interpersonal communication. Her research interests are at the intersection of health and interpersonal communication as it relates to social support, stigma, and resilience. Her dissertation explored police officers’ preferences for support and factors influencing mental health-related disclosure decisions. Craw is particularly interested in work that improves access to needed support for underserved populations and those who face extensive barriers to gaining assistance. As the daughter of a police officer (36 years) and granddaughter of a firefighter (40 years), she has a true passion for research that informs mental health-related interventions for first responders, enhances communication surrounding mental health, and improves access to support. At Youturn Health, Craw manages client success for our clients in the public sector.