Imagine you are sitting in the station finishing up the last of a burglary report. The radio crackles on the desk and an officer states he is they are bringing one back to the station after a traffic stop. He's being arrested for DUI. Just as you're getting up to leave and head home, your cell phone vibrates. It's a text from another officer. "Wait at the station," it says. You wonder about it and sit back down. Soon the back door opens and a person appears in handcuffs. You slump back into the chair when you realize you recognize this person. In fact, you've known this person all their life. The DUI arrest is your teenaged son.
When a Child Gets into Trouble
Parenting is hard work. In fact, it's downright exhausting. Some nights, especially when a child is going through a particularly difficult time like the teen years, a parent falls into bed worn out from what feels like an entire day of direction and redirection. Because there is no manual, parenting must be done on the fly. Most parents do the best they can. They attempt to instill values and guide children how to live as respectful, peaceful and law-abiding citizens. When a child gets into trouble, this can create a sense of self-doubt within the parents. Essentially, it can be internalized as, Where did I go wrong? What could I have done differently? Why is this happening to me?
"There is a lot of disappointment and embarrassment," says Mike Wasilewski, a fourteen year veteran of an Illinois department holding a Master of Social Work. "Some get defensive or minimize. Disappointment is the big thing I've seen and there is a sense of fear about the future." When one of the parents is a law enforcement officer, this can complicate things even further.
When an officer's child gets into trouble
"There's a compounding of that sense of embarrassment," Wasilewski explains. "A personalization in that I'm supposed to be above the law. It's a bigger blow and especially the sense it's looked at a little more harshly by my peers and colleagues especially the first time a kid gets into trouble."
Although retired at the time his son was 15 years old and began to get into trouble, Keith Bettinger dealt with many common feelings. "I was embarrassed and ashamed," he states. "I was also very angry and wanted nothing to do with him." The dynamic of being in law enforcement does change things a bit. The three most common ways are in judgment of self-worth, by colleagues and by the community.
When an officer goes to a call involving a child getting into trouble, often there are questions about the skills of the parent. "There's a tendency to be a little bit judgmental," Wasilewski states. "There is a judgmental attitude about parenting. They ask things like, 'What is the parent doing?' When that officer's child then gets into trouble, it becomes a sense of self. Essentially, it becomes an attack of self." Wasilewski explains the officer then turns the questions internal and asks, "What am I doing wrong? Am I not better than anyone else?" He states officers themselves place a greater stigma on the situation. "The sense of embarrassment is strong," he states. "The bigger issue is if the person doesn't have a strong ego, it will attack their sense of self. Is my kid rebelling against me? Is this normal? Am I being a hypocrite? I'm a law enforcement officer and I can't even keep my own kid out of trouble." As if judging themselves personally wasn't enough, law enforcement officers also face potential judgment at work.
In most other places, co-workers are not necessarily going to know if someone's child gets into trouble. "If you don't take it into work there's not going to be a lot of knowledge about it," says Wasilewski. "Police departments tend to be a gossip nest. A lot of speculation and grudges get drawn out there." Fortunately, a negative reaction is not always experienced.
"In our case, I think they were more understanding and understood my embarrassment as being a former LEO with a criminal for a son," Bettinger explains.
Wasilewski points out the reaction at work often depends on the way the officer handles the situation. "If they come in with respect, they're going to get respect," he explains. "I have a friend who said 'I have a kid or two who've gotten into trouble and it's not a reflection on me'." Unfortunately, keeping a child's trouble from becoming personal can be even more difficult for a law enforcement officer due to the judgment from the community.
In the Community
"If it becomes public, it's a huge stigma," Wasilewski explains. "It's a Gotcha moment. Any smack of hypocrisy either real or perceived is huge. If an officer is in trouble or his family member is in trouble (blogs) light up. A cop here busted his child for possession of cannabis, but you'd have thought the kid was found with a garage full of dead hookers." Many officers, especially those from small communities, feel they spend their careers living in a fish bowl. What would be a small family matter for a non-law enforcement family becomes a community scandal for an officer. Unfortunately, many in the community look for chinks in the armor of the police. An arrested child gives them the opportunity to point fingers and boast, See you're not better than us.
This expectation of behaving better than the average citizen doesn't remain wholly in the community. In her book, Cops Don't Cry, Vali Stone explains, "Police officers often expect more from their children than other families, especially when it comes to obeying the law. This expectation can cause children to rebel just to prove that they are individuals who have different values and attitudes from their police parents." How do police parents deal with this rebellion?
Officers deal with problems by taking immediate action, Vali explains. They usually take a cop's view before thinking it through. "Because officers are used to being in complete control at work, when they use the same technique at home they are shocked to find they are usually unsuccessful," she continues. "Kids, especially teenagers, do not like to be treated unfairly or without respect and will immediately rebel. This becomes a vicious circle - parent takes control, child gets back up, parent becomes frustrated and more determined to make the child listen, child rebels and can cause problems in other areas. Then it starts again with the next incident. Enforcing strict rules and regulations makes for a good police officer, but using that same tactic on a teenager can cause major waves." Being a parent means constant guidance. Wasilewski offers several steps for doing this:
- Set very clear boundaries-With adolescents in particular. Let them know they represent the family and you like it or not. If you have clear expectations, they will meet them.
- Pick your battles wisely-Kids will rebel. Decide what you're going to hold your ground on and what you're going to allow them to do to express themselves a little more.
- Don't be overbearing-Again, children need guidance, but they also need the room to grow and make their own decisions. They are not mini-clones of you.
- Don't step in and rescue them- It enables the behavior. If you let them take the consequences, be it civil or criminal, then they realize you're not going to bail them out and the likelihood of them reducing the problem is greater. It shows the kid, we do have consequences. Everybody does.
- Don't overreact-This aggravates things and makes it worse.
Supporting your Child
If your child does end up in trouble, you can continue to guide and support them. First, remember everyone makes their own decisions. Every parent makes mistakes but most are trying to do our best. Ultimately, your child is responsible for his or her own choices. What they need most, according to Wasilewski, is unconditional love. "(They need to know) we care about you. We will be here for you. We love you no matter what. The family love needs to be unconditional. It does not mean you're not going to be held accountable. If you need your butt kicked, it's going to be kicked. If I need to, we'll throw you into the back of the car and drag you into the station. You need to find that balance of accepting the person and not accepting the behavior."
Having a child get into trouble can be difficult for any parent. A parent working in law enforcement adds additional elements. If you are the parent, remember you are not the cause and it doesn't mean you failed or are less of a parent or an officer. If you are a co-worker, give your support. Finally, when working with the community, be empathetic.
Bettinger sums it up, "If I knew I was going to be the parent of a criminal, I would have been nicer to parents with problem children when I answered calls for service to their homes. I would have spent more time with them. I would have learned of more options to suggest to them in dealing with their child and the problems he/she was creating. Maybe I would have created a list of referral agencies they could contact for assistance in dealing with the problem so they wouldn't wind up dealing with the same problems I eventually had to deal with."