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How Family Retreats Can Help Law Enforcement Families Heal

Police families are a cop's true first responder. They deserve our help.

Key points

  • Policework and the culture of policing spill over to family life in ways that can be damaging.
  • Family residential retreats differ from first responder retreats in important ways.
  • The spouses and significant others of police officers often feel obligated to "fix" their wounded mates.
  • The needs and sacrifices of police families are too frequently overlooked by police agencies and the public.
Pitchayaarch Photography/Shutterstock
Source: Pitchayaarch Photography/Shutterstock

Behind every cop client is a family. If you are married to a cop or related to one, like it or not, it's very likely that you too are married to the job.

In my last article, I wrote about the residential retreat, a highly successful approach to treating police officers and other first responders struggling with symptoms of traumatic stress. Here, I'll write about residential retreats designed specifically for police families, meaning spouses, parents, and significant others. They are similar to first responder retreats, but different in many important ways.

How Policework Spills Over to Family Life

I call the ways that policework spills into family life "givens" because, in most instances, they are aspects of policework that won’t change, no matter how much you wish they would.

  1. Long hours: Policework is a "greedy" profession. It demands and rewards long hours. Special assignments, training, court appearances, overtime, arrests made late in the shift, and so on, all extend the work week as does pressure to hang out with your shift mates after work.
  2. Unpredictability: Last-minute changes are hard on families. Unplanned overtime, being called in for court on a day off (and then having the hearing canceled or postponed), filling in for a sick co-worker, training, crises, critical events disasters, and deployments all play havoc with family plans.
  3. Public scrutiny: As a family, you and your children live in the same limelight as your law enforcement mate. You may feel like an unpaid representative of the department as you listen to negative opinions about cops, parry questions about the latest headline-making police shooting, or see someone you love vilified in the press or on social media.
  4. Playing second fiddle: Most cops have two families: their work family and their real family. This is both a blessing and a burden. Pride in the job, over-identification with the police officer role, demands for loyalty to one’s peers, and dedication to the job, often create an atmosphere where real families feel like the work family comes first.
  5. Living with a stranger: Many families watch as a once beloved and familiar person turns into a stranger. Family members are not mental health professionals. It can be frightening to watch your loved one struggle with traumatic stress, organizational betrayal, mental health issues, or substance abuse.
  6. Living with the 24-hour cop: From the academy onward, cops are rewarded for being vigilant, emotionally controlled, and skeptical—if not outright cynical—toward others. No one warns them that these work skills can be over-learned, over-habituated, and damage relationships with family and friends.
  7. Loving someone who loves a risky job: Policework is dangerous, though not as lethal as farming, fishing, or driving a taxi. This is no consolation when your loved ones are working in the middle of a pandemic, are continually exposed to the threat of violence, have a daily dose of despair and people's pain, and could be sued for everything they do or don’t do.

Elements of a Successful Residential Family Retreat

The basic structure of family retreats is similar to the structure of first responder retreats: the assurance of safety and confidentiality, a community of peers, one-on one-counseling to address the client's trauma history, prolonged exposure debriefings, bilateral brain stimulation (EMDR or brain spotting), meditation, psycho-educational presentations, chaplaincy services, and an AA meeting.

Most, but not all, family retreat clients will be women. Women in our culture are socialized to care for others before themselves. (Male significant others and spouses face these same challenges, but without the burden of a societal mandate). Many are struggling to understand the changes work-related stress and trauma have created in their first responder partners. Most are exhausted, emotionally drained, and frightened after months, often years, trying unsuccessfully to “fix” their psychologically wounded mates. They are isolated, believing no other family is going through what they are experiencing.

Unlike first responder retreats, where it can be difficult to get clients to open up, family clients are often eager to talk. For too long they have been pretending things are OK and deferring their own needs to their families. The first responder family retreat is often a last-ditch attempt to save a failing marriage and/or to save themselves. This is why a critical first step is to emphasize to clients that the focus is on them: their traumas and their challenges.

Family retreats have the following goals:

  • Restore self-confidence
  • Examine clients’ trauma histories with steps to resolving any residual effects from childhood abuse
  • Distinguish between what clients can and cannot control in their relationships
  • Encourage better self-care
  • Move toward a healthier, more independent lifestyle
  • Establish a network of support

What's Needed to Achieve These Goals?

In addition to the elements of successful treatment listed above, for a positive outcome, it’s important to include the following in family retreats.

  • Information about first responder trauma (preferably an in-person presentation by a first responder)
  • Information about the way first responder trauma, the job, and the culture of policing spill over to the family (preferably an in-person presentation by a veteran family member)
  • Assessment and skill building for self-care and establishing a healthy lifestyle, including meditation, yoga, and self-expression through art
  • A discussion about letting go of a grudge (sometimes referred to as forgiveness)
  • An in-depth discussion of intimate partner violence, including the creation of a safety plan if needed
  • Information about thinking errors
  • Information about alcohol and substance abuse and groups where users can seek help
  • An education session about what to aim for in relationships

Wrapping Up

These are extraordinarily tough times to love a cop. Sadly, the world has grown increasingly polarized. Public attitudes toward law enforcement have changed radically.

I don’t know the long-term effects of these changing times, but I do know that law enforcement families have shown remarkable courage and resilience in the face of increasing scrutiny, danger, and tragedy. I wish every police family the support they deserve, including culturally competent organizational and mental health support that respects and recognizes the needs of law enforcement families.

A note about children: The sons and daughters of police officers have many challenges of their own. Much has been written for and about them, but I am unaware of any retreat settings designed for the children of active duty officers.


First Responder Support Network retreats for spouses and significant others:

First Responder Support Network first responder retreats:

Kirschman, E. 2018 I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know. New York, Guilford Press.

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