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First Responders and Mental Health: Part 3

The Unique Challenges Involved in Raising Children as a First Responder

First responders experience a significant amount of stress throughout their careers. While enduring long days, unpredictable events, and life-threatening incidents involving serious exposure to trauma, first responders risk developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The effects of this are not isolated only to the first responder and it’s likely to take a major toll on their children as well.

Children are not accustomed to the stress and trauma associated with their parent’s work. While no parent intends to have complications of work affect their children, it can be something very difficult to hide from them. Whether your schedule doesn’t permit quality time with your family or your PTSD symptoms interfere with your well-being and relationships, raising children as a first responder parent is by no means an easy job.

Challenges Unique to First Responders

Long Hours and Shift Work

One of the major challenges in working as a first responder is managing the long hours and shift work. Unless you or someone close to you is involved in this line of work, it’s difficult to truly understand the depth of emotion experienced when work interferes with precious family time. 

This can take a toll on family dynamics, no matter the age or number of children involved. These sort of strict job demands often come at the cost of missing special events, sports games or extracurricular activities, and significant milestones in their children’s lives. Young children may have a hard time understanding why their mom or dad are home less frequently.

Working Holidays

In addition to working long hours, first responders are needed to work many major holidays. This can be especially disappointing for children as these holidays are celebratory and joyful times. Not being able to book off your child’s first Christmas, their birthday, or their graduation can be devastatingly difficult. 

As children grow older and begin school, these holidays can be especially important to them as they chat with their peers and swap stories about their plans for occasions. Although they get to have time off from school, they may continue to wonder why their family can’t all be together during this time.

Unpredictable Hours

While work hours can be long, they are also unpredictable. Having to drop everything at a moment’s notice can present some major challenges while raising children. Changing plans at the last minute to go to work is never easy. Although it’s helpful to have the support of a spouse or another family member, missing out on valuable time can lead to ever greater stress in the household.

Working unpredictable hours can be even more of a challenge if both parents are working as first responders. The constant uncertainty of who can be available to pick the kids up from school, prepare meals, or tuck them into bed at night is almost impossible to plan ahead for.

Raising Children While Coping with Mental Health

Coping with PTSD is a complicated process. Having to take care of yourself throughout the day is no easy feat. When children and a family are involved, it presents even greater challenges.

Many of the symptoms involved in stress-induced mental illness such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression can take a serious toll on your family and children. Not only do these symptoms have negative implications on your own health, but they also affect your children’s health.

  1. Re-experiencing trauma: a common symptom of PTSD is to re-experience the traumatic event through memory. These flashbacks may arise unpredictably and come with overwhelming feelings of grief, guilt, anger, or fear. Not only is this incredibly disruptive for yourself, but also can be for your children who may witness you going through it.
  1. Avoidance and numbing: while re-experiencing symptoms of trauma can be unsettling, many people coping with PTSD tend to avoid certain emotions or physical places to prevent these flashbacks. This can impact your children’s lives as you may need to avoid certain places they enjoy going to like the community park or the movie theater.
  1. Stress-response: as a parent, patience is one of the most important elements to raising children. When PTSD is involved, symptoms tend to affect your resilience and stress response. This can influence how well you communicate with or punish your children.
  1. Secondary or vicarious trauma: although you may have been the one to experience a stressful event, your child is still able to develop symptoms of PTSD. This is known as secondary or vicarious trauma. This is especially true in kids who watch the news or hear stories about firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders. Over exposure can lead to increased anxiety and depression as they become concerned for their parent’s safety.

Finding Optimism, Joy, and Meaning When Raising Children as a First Responder

First responders witness the most tragic and horrific events each and every day. It’s no surprise that after experiencing this sort of life-changing trauma your view on the world is altered. Rather than seeing the good in everyday life, you may be viewing the world in a very dark and negative way.

How you see the world around you can play a role in how you raise your children. You may have an instinct to shelter your children based on your experiences; however, it’s important to find balance in allowing your children to grow up in the world and create their own purpose and meaning.

Finding optimism, joy, and meaning is hard work, but it isn’t impossible. Managing your PTSD and the many symptoms associated with this help you find more joy and happiness in life. This will have an immediate effect on your children — the better you feel, the better they will feel.

Final Thoughts

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance can present many unique challenges as a first responder. It’s no surprise that placing your mental and physical health in danger on the job can impact both yourself and your family.

If your symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, or depression are affecting how you raise your children, it’s important to speak up about this. Taking control of your symptoms will not only improve your own health and well-being but it will enhance the quality time spent with your kids throughout their lifetime.

Written by Laura Anderson, MA, MSW, RSW

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