Being a police officer means inevitably being around children. Officers work around kids in almost everything they do whether it is riding bike patrol, investigating a crime or shagging calls. It’s important for officers to recognize that these children are affected by their presence and regardless of what the officer needs to do he or she has the opportunity to make the situation better for a child. Developmentally children handle things differently depending on their age. Although children’s maturity and growth can vary widely, there are some common stages that children go through. Officers can utilize these stages to communicate more successfully with the young members of their community. The Fred Rogers Company One on One identifies stages of childhood development and offer guidelines for officers.
Babies and Toddlers
Although children who are very young may seem to not be aware of what is going on around them and not affected by a police presence, this is not true. Children of this age are completely dependent on their caregivers for their sense of safety and security. If they are separated from their caregiver, it can be incredibly frightening and cause long-term trauma. Witnessing violence also affects babies and toddlers profoundly. An officer can minimize the trauma by recognizing the importance of the parent-child bond and treat the parent with respect. Unfortunately many parents do not think about the effect of their behavior on their children when they behave in ways that necessitate a law enforcement response. Remember that the children are innocent victims and try to avoid viewing the children as future offenders. If officers behave professionally and with a young child’s developmental stage in mind, he or she has the potential to make an already negative situation a bit better.
Preschool age children have vivid imaginations and their worlds are full of fantasy. They believe their thoughts and feelings have magical power. One of the important keys to this stage of development is that when something bad happens often preschool age children believe they caused it. When an officer has to arrest a parent, a child may feel it was because they did something wrong not their parent. A child may have been wishing that their parent would stop doing something, such as drinking, using drugs or fighting with each other and when an officer their mom or dad, they might believe it was their wish that made the arrest happen. A child’s imagination at this age also colors how they view officers themselves as well. To a young child, an officer is still in the realm of superhero with the power to help them, hurt them or take them away. They don’t understand an officer’s actual role only that they have powers over other-super powers. Depending on what they have heard from adults and their past experience with officers, a child can view an officer as the good guy or the villain. In recognition of this stage, an officer can listen to a child’s ideas or concerns regarding a situation and also use simple language to explain to a child what is happening.
School-age children are incredibly curious. They are beginning to explore their world and have a budding recognition they play an individual role in it. Children at this developmental stage are sponges for growing values and principles. They listen to those around them and learn from them. They seek information and understanding from adults and peers and are heavily influenced by those around them. They are also concerned about fairness and justice at this age. When an officer interacts with children at this stage it is helpful to deal with them fairly and honestly. Officers can calmly acknowledge them and respond to their questions and concerns. This is a prime time for an officer to become a positive role model for a child.
Anyone who has dealt with a child at this stage knows how difficult it can be under the best circumstances. Now try handling situations involving one or more teenagers where they are questioning and challenging authority. Whether an officer is responding to a call where teenagers are part of the witnesses or addressing concerns of teenagers gathering together and becoming unruly, how an officer communicates with these children can change the situation for the better. Teenagers are trying to identify themselves as unique individuals. They speak in ways that seem aggressive and confrontational to adults. The first thing officers should keep in mind is to not take what a teenager says and more importantly how a teenager says something personally. Teenagers often draw officers into their struggles with authority and are also susceptible to humiliation. They want to save face, especially with their peers, even to the extreme and to their detriment. Often an officer is able to diffuse a situation just by separating teenagers from each other. Isolate those that seem to be the biggest trouble makers. Officers should set clear boundaries and limits and use the correct amount of justifiable force for the situation. Teenagers need adults to be adults even though it seems that is the last thing they want. With children, it’s about what they need not what they want. Finally, officers can treat teenagers as individual, semi-independent people instead of stereo-typing them and lumping them all together.
Children do not come with an owner’s manual. This is true for parents as well as for police who are tasked with handling other people’s children. In many situations, officers handle children from one’s who cannot even talk to one’s who won’t stop. Every interaction has the potential to remove some of the negative of the situation and to increase a child’s understanding of the role police play in society. By understanding where a child is developmentally and communicating with them appropriately, an officer can increase cooperation, both now and in the future, and decrease the trauma of a negative interaction. As law enforcement professionals, we have the ability to change a child’s mind about police and by doing so affect interactions for our brothers and sisters in blue in the future.
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Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for eight years. She has an M.S. in Criminology and CJ from Indiana State University and writes full-time from Eugene, Oregon. For more information, visit www.thewritinghand.net