In 1998, Phoenix Police Officer Greg Redmon was shot. The round ripped into his shoulder after his partner's bullet went through the windshield of a taxi cab, the perpetrator, and then another window. Officer Redmon survived. Right after the incident, an officer close to the family picked up the phone.
Denise Redmon remembers what happened when she answered, "He said, 'First off everything is ok. I just wanted to let you know that Greg was shot today. Do you want me to come over and help you tell the kids?'" Not wanting to interrupt the nine- and 13-year-olds at school, they agreed to meet later and take the girls out to dinner. As Denise hung up, an emotional weight bore down on her. She didn't have a problem handling the news. After all, Greg and she had been divorced several years and she was a police dispatcher. What she had never considered was what she would tell her daughters. "It was really awful. That was the more upsetting part for me. I wasn't upset about him being shot because it's always a possibility. You know so many people who have been shot and that they were okay and you know it's part of the job. I dreaded telling the kids. I was very fearful of their reaction."
During a quiet moment at dinner, Denise told the girls their father had been shot. Explaining he was all right, she asked if they wanted to go see him at the hospital. Both girls did. But, when Denise spoke with Greg, he discouraged the visit due to the distance. Neither child saw their father before the following weekend.
Denise's situation is not unique. Thousands of officers are injured or killed on duty every year. Many of these officers have children. Few officers or their spouses have been taught how to help their children deal with traumatic events. Much like adult family members, when an officer is killed, children of police officers become overwhelmed with fear. Questions such as, "Will my Daddy or Mommy be next?" or W"ho will take care of me if he or she is killed?" and "How can I protect him or her?" flow through their minds. Since most parents do not talk to their children the way they talk to each other, children are often left trying to cope with immense emotional turmoil with only bits and pieces of information. Add to that the horrifying images in the media, and an incident can take on enormous and unsettling proportions for a child. In her book Cops Don't Cry, Vali Stone states, "One of the greatest fears any child will suffer is that they might lose a parent...In a police family that fear may be more prominent. Watching television programs where officers spend the majority of their time killing people or being killed, listening to the news, reading the paper and listening to stories at home provide genuine reasons for feeling that fear." When an actual traumatic event occurs, these fears become reality. So, what can a police family do to minimize trauma? Many things.
"Children will respond to a critical incident, even if the incident was minor or happened to someone else. It's very common for kids whose parents have been only peripherally involved in a shooting to worry that their parent will get shot. They need to talk about their worries and be reassured," Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D. states in her book, I Love a Cop. The Red Cross suggests the following tips for talking with your children:
- Listen to and accept children's feelings.
- Give honest, simple, brief answers to their questions.
- Make sure they understand your answers and the meaning you intend.
- Use words or phrases that won't confuse a child or make the world more frightening.
- Give your child an honest explanation if you are feeling so upset you don't want to talk about what happened. You may want to take "time out" and ask a trusted family friend to help.
- Even if you feel the world is an unsafe place, you can reassure your child by saying, "The event is over. Now we'll do everything possible to stay safe, and together we can help things get back to normal."
- Be especially loving and supportive; children need you at this time.
Some children have strong reactions and behavior changes after an upsetting event; while others will show little indication he or she has been affected. Keep in mind, just because a child doesn't exhibit signs of trauma it does not mean he or she wasn't affected and doesn't need support. Everyone deals with stress in different ways. The Red Cross emphasizes children struggle with trauma "because his or her view of the world as a safe and predicable place has been lost," and lists some children's reactions:
- Thumb sucking
- Clinging to parents or fear of strangers
- Older, more independent children want to spend unusual amounts of time with family members
- Refusing to sleep alone
- Fear of the dark
- Physical symptoms, such as stomachaches
- Difficulty concentrating
The Red Cross encourages parents to seek professional help if certain symptoms, which are listed on their web site, last longer than three months. Kirschman stresses, "It is important to set limits on unacceptable behavior while recognizing that there are no unacceptable feelings."
Dealing with a traumatic event is a struggle for the most mature adults. For the children of police officers, an on-duty injury or death often results in the culmination of their greatest fears. Fortunately, many things can be done to help. "Helping your child cope with a parent's trauma can be an opportunity for a child to mature and for you to become closer as a family," Kirschman states. Looking back on the incident with her children's father, Denise states she would handle the situation differently now. "I think they should have been able to go see him, so they could see he was okay. It should have been encouraged." When asked to speculate on why they didn't realize the importance of easing their girls' fears at the time, Denise said, "He just didn't think it was that big of a deal. The police department never taught the officers how to deal with their families."