While the holiday season revolves around celebrating and spending time with family, this can look starkly different for first responder families. Given the current staffing shortages and an overall influx of holiday-related events that require safety professionals to attend, first responders are needed not only by their families during the holidays, but also their communities. This can cause immense pressure and even tension in families. Following are some tips for first responder families to navigate the holiday season.

1. Managing Expectations and Establishing Boundaries

For those with only one or two first responders in the family, or even only one as an in-law, it can be difficult for others to understand that the nature of first responder work requires that they work on holidays. Not everyone will. Therefore, it is important to manage expectations and establish boundaries with family members. It is critical to communicate clearly and as early as possible about holiday plans and schedules to mitigate upset or tension when the first responder has to miss certain celebrations.

2. Develop Unique Traditions or Ways to Connect

Even though you might not make it to the family party or be able to tuck your child into bed on Christmas Eve, you can find alternative time to do something special with your family on a different day. In fact, make the event or experience new, fun, and creative, and family members will truly appreciate the effort and the quality time spent together. Because schedules change and first responders might need to stay later or go in earlier than expected, do not fixate on choosing a day. Instead, look for ways to connect that you can do at almost any time.

For example, maybe each family member puts an activity idea in a hat and when the first responder is home and can spend quality time together, you choose an option from the hat. No matter what you choose, be sure that you care about the importance of connecting and spending time together. It will just require a bit of flexibility. Let’s face it, it’s not possible to do every activity and have pan out perfectly, so modeling your adaptability and overall resilience as a family is great for children.

3. Focus on Being Present

One of the most important yet most challenging aspects for a first responder to navigate is being present and engaged when returning home. Family members want your presence and to engage in conversation, play games, and celebrate traditions. This can be difficult following a shift, so develop a plan for transitioning in a healthy and effective way so you can remain present. Think about what might be helpful ahead of time and discuss that with your spouse and children. For instance, if you know going to the gym after your shift before returning home to your children baking and watching Christmas movies will help you unwind, then plan to do so. Alternatively, if spending some time changing your clothing, showering, and resting in a separate room before joining the family will allow you to feel less overwhelmed when transitioning home, ask your family for an hour before you join them.

Speaking as a police officer’s daughter, kids care a lot more about your presence than the date or the gifts. It’s important to recognize and acknowledge that this is a tough job, and you need time after work to be Mom or Dad, or husband or wife, etc. to ensure that you are present when engaging with loved ones after a shift. Also, give yourself breaks when you need to. Your job takes a lot of energy and so does time with family. Remember to be patient and kind to yourself during this especially busy and draining time. Don’t put too much pressure on making up for not being there – you are already under great pressure at work and because of the holidays. Just focus on being engaged when you can spend time together.

It can be extremely difficult to be a first responder during the holidays, from keeping people in the community safe at holiday-related celebrations to being exposed to deep sadness and suffering during a time when most are celebrating. Feeling guilty about missing moments with family or letting them down can lead to even more pressure. This holiday season, instead of focusing on what you are missing and how your family might be missing out, try focusing on steps you can take to spend quality time (no matter the date) with the ones you care about most. You deserve it, and so do your families.