Blue Line


December 28, 2012  By Stephanie Conn

by Staphanie Conn

The impact of police work is not confined to officers. It also affects their families, which has implications for the officers’ ability to manage the stress of the job. This was the catalyst behind the Blue Line Family Forum.

Shift work wreaks havoc on the police family. Getting stuck on a call means “date night” gets delayed or cancelled. It is hard to play on a sport team because of the demands of a rotating schedule, on-call duties, late calls and exhaustion after a long day. Police parents sometimes miss parent-teacher conferences, plays and their children’s games.

Police officers can also fall prey to a biological roller coaster where highs become associated with the adrenaline produced at work, leaving them to crash when off the job. (1) The lows inadvertently become associated with family. Officers chase the high by working their days off or spending time with work buddies where they can retell exciting work stories. Family members, at least non-police ones, may be left behind.

Communications are also impacted by the job. Police tend to be more “to the point” with questioning, finding themselves impatient with “extra” information. Conversation details become filtered and categorized as “pertinent” and “not pertinent”. Listening just goes out the window and officers’ ability to communicate what they are experiencing is also impacted. Many times they cannot talk about work with their partner or family. The details are too gory, it is a confidential file or they wouldn’t understand anyway without a long explanation.

Officers’ exposure to secondary traumatic stress also affects the police family. Hirshfeld (2005) found that spouses and partners of officers who experienced PTSD symptoms, but were not exposed to a line-of-duty critical incident, experienced secondary stress symptoms that also mirrored PTSD symptoms. (2) This trauma contagion can create a PTSD family, as they struggle to support the affected officer. In a study of police wives, Thompson (2012) found hyper-vigilance, always being on-duty and being suspicious of others affected family activities. (3)

So how does the police family stay healthy? Talk about what is going on! Police spouses/partners should speak up at the first sign of the officer pulling away or not wanting to participate in family activities.

I’m not encouraging a tug-of-war between partners nor advocating that officers participate in all family activities at the expense of their need for rest. I am suggesting partners have candid conversations where each partner can use “f” words – FEELINGS. “I feel overwhelmed by stress at work,” “I felt lonely when you pulled away because I was hoping we would spend time together,” etc.

There is a misconception that if a partner loves you he/she should know what you are thinking and feeling. The truth is that only you fully know how you feel and what you think. You have to share this with your partner.

Here’s a suggested framework: I feel when because . This way, your partner gets the complete picture. You might even follow that statement with “and what would be helpful is “.
Again, you cannot expect your partner to instinctively know what you need if he/she does not know your thoughts and feelings.

If you have already noticed a change in your relationship and the thought of having an “f” word conversation is too difficult or doesn’t seem to help, seek professional guidance. Sometimes getting an outsider’s feedback and guidance can get you back on track. Check to see if your agency offers peer support for police families. If not, seek support through Blue Line’s Family Forum and/or national organizations such as Badge of Life and National Police Wives Association.

Beyond talking, I encourage you to resist the urge to be a couch potato outside of work. Be engaged with your family and friends to fend off the post-shift slump. Maintain your health by being active. Pay attention to how you interact with your family. If your conversations sound more like you are taking a report or conducting an interrogation, take a deep breath and try a different approach.

It is doable. It will require some effort on your part but your family is worth it.

(1) Gilmartin, K. M. (2002). Emotional survival for law enforcement: A guide for officers and their families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press.
(2) Hirshfeld, A. (2005). Secondary effects of traumatization among spouses and partners of newly recruited police officers (Doctoral dissertation). (UMI No. 3191973).
(3) Thompson, A. (2012). Operational stress and the police marriage: a narrative study of police spouses. (Master’s thesis, University of British Columbia).

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