One of the things I’ve heard most from those in relationships with officers, as well as from officers themselves is how difficult it can be to turn IT off when they transition from work to home. “It” being all the physical, mental and emotional properties of being a law enforcement officer. Officers have hours upon hours of training and then tons of street experiences that deeply seat mentalities and behaviors. But what happens when an officer is trying to raise his or her children and cannot separate the aspects of themselves that make them a good officer? What happens when an officer deals with his or her family like they would a suspect? Unfortunately, especially with teenagers, this happens so often. Many law enforcement relationships have fallen apart because the officer and his or her significant other have a hard time relating to each other and/or communicating in a way that is healthy. As parents, we’re not given instructions for raising our children to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society. So, when the only training you have is what you’ve gotten in the academy and on the streets, it can spell some rocky familial roads and can harm relationships especially those with children.
The “Police Officer Paradox”
Ellen Kirschman Ph.D. describes this paradox in her book, I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know. “The same work habits that make a good cop can be hazardous to being a good mate and parent,” she explains. Officers are trained to take control. Experiences often make them fearful and suspicious. They learn that any act of defiance is potentially life threatening. Officers are taught to get their way by using command presence and demanding compliance from others. During interactions on the street, in the capacity of their duties, this is essential to survival, keeping the peace and performing their sworn duties well. Kirschman explains, “The failure to get compliance raises an officer’s anxiety because he or she has been trained from the start to believe that a noncompliant suspect constitutes a threat to officer safety. Furthermore, when cops themselves are noncompliant, they risk getting disciplined or jeopardize their chances of promotion.” Due to this, officers are used to ordering people around. Unfortunately, this can backfire when you’re a parent.
What Children Need
Children need to be raised with a firm but friendly approach. So often parents ask, “What does my child need from me?” Parenting is a difficult job under the best of circumstances. Now add additional dynamics like one or both parents working in a highly stressful, dangerous job that requires extreme family sacrifice such as law enforcement. The good thing is that no matter what your circumstances, two parent, single parent, law enforcement or not, all children need just a few basic things: unconditional love (this does not mean acceptance of bad behavior or choices), healthy boundaries, acceptance of their identity(knowing which of your child’s characteristics to leave alone and which need some assistance to improve), healthy role models (this doesn’t mean your child needs to be a miniature version of you) and respect (this is not the same as fear).
Children, especially those in the rebellious, authority-questioning/defying stages, can be a struggle for those trained to elicit absolute compliance and when faced with non-compliance experience feelings of anxiety and fear. Officers can successfully handle these deep-rooted training and experience-based mentalities and the corresponding behaviors with some key tools. First, law enforcement parents and their partners need to recognize that an officer’s training and experiences will color all aspects of their perception. The key is to understand this and be able to mentally disengage from your work when dealing with your child. Children need a balance of firmness and nurturing. They need to be free to explore themselves and the world and people around them with the loving guidance and support of a mature, emotionally-balanced parent or parents. Second, share a realistic world-view with your child. Kids are already venturing out into a scary unknown world. Imagine adding a cop’s perception to this. Give them enough information and skills to keep them safe but don’t pour out only visions of the ugliness you experience at work. Officers deal with the worst in people and human cruelty at an extreme. Teaching your child to make healthy, mature, informed decisions is imperative to a child becoming an adult that makes healthy, mature, informed decisions. Filling their minds with all the darkness of humanity will not be helpful. Third, discipline with love and respect. It is too easy for an officer to respond to disobedience with tactics learned on the job. These tactics generally incite fear-based compliance. In Yes, Your Teen is Crazy: Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind, Michael J. Bradley, Ed.D. explains, “Fear maintains order, but it does not teach true discipline, which is self-control and responsibility. True discipline emanates from within, not from a ruler or a hand. True discipline is born from respect, which is not fear. Fear is easy to earn. Respect is tough. Really tough.”
Our goal as parents is to keep our children safe and to help them grow up to be an asset to society. Often it is easy to fall into parenting techniques that are less than ideal and can actually be harmful. It is especially easy if we’re under stress, at our wits end and falling back on interaction skills we have internalized through training and years of experience but designed to work in a law enforcement environment. Children need guidance. They need parents who accept them but not always their choices, love them, set boundaries, make clear, concise, consistent rules, discipline, model healthy behaviors and allow them age-appropriate room to explore the world and utilize the values and life-skills we have taught them. To be a good parent, an officer must learn to turn IT off or his or her child will end up feeling like a criminal and it will slam shut a barrier as solid as a cell door between them. With the right awareness and tools, officers and their partners can raise healthy children who grow to respect them and are proud of the badge they wear.
About The Author:
Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Officer.com. Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.