stressed out first responder family

Growing up in a First Responder Family

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Growing Up in a First Responder Family

Last week, I discussed the effects of secondary stress on the spouse of a First Responder. This week, the topic is still secondary stress, however I would like to turn the focus on how children of First Responders are affected. 

When a First Responder parent develops PTSD, their children may also begin to show signs of PTSD. A child does not have to experience trauma firsthand in order to develop issues from it. Secondary stress in children can present in a variety of ways that might not always seem to be related. If you have more than one child, secondary stress might look different in each of them.

When children are exposed to a First Responder parent with PTSD, the stress of the situation can affect development. They might start reverting back to younger behaviors or develop issues with bed wetting or nightmares. You may find your child is having learning difficulties or falling behind at school.

You might find yourself dealing with temper tantrums or aggressive behavior. Some children act out or start having difficulties with siblings or peers. They might try to act like the First Responder parent to feel a connection to them. Others parentify or take on an adult role. Often parents mistake this behavior as “just a phase”, when in reality it is the way that the secondary stress is presenting itself. 

Another huge sign of secondary stress in a child is the development of anxiety. For the child of a First Responder, the fact that their parent works shift work, long hours, and are exposed to dangerous situations can often have an impact on them. They know being a First Responder is a dangerous job so they might worry about their parent being injured or dying when they are at work. Exposure to stories about firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, police officers and other first responders on the news on TV or social media platforms can increase the anxiety a child may already have about their parent’s safety. 

This can cause the child to develop fears about being away from their First Responder parent which can lead to separation anxiety. In more severe versions, their separation anxiety might even be directed towards both parents where they become anxious about being alone in general.  

I recently spoke with the adult child of a First Responder who described the anxiety she dealt with as a child and how it followed her into adulthood. 

When I was really little I had an extremely hard time with separation anxiety. I didn’t like being away from my parents and would get very upset if they left me and my siblings for even short amounts of time. I would panic even if they were just outside in the backyard after my siblings and I went to bed. I had difficulty dealing with bedtime and would often get up multiple times with questions for my parents as a way to avoid going to sleep. As I got older, the separation anxiety became more of a fear of missing out (FOMO) when I was away from my parents. When I moved out and got married, I had an extremely hard time leaving my parents permanently...even though I only moved a six minute drive from them.”

She went on to tell me how moving away from her parents was so difficult in fact, that she decided to seek counselling. Through her work in therapy, she realized how much of an impact growing up in a First Responder family had on her. The lack of routine because of shift work, the fear of being separated from her father while he was at work, and the PTSD her father dealt with all contributed to the Generalized Anxiety Disorder that she was diagnosed with. 

She talked to me about how she wished that there were more resources for her First Responder family when she was young so that she could have dealt with her anxiety sooner. This truly is the reason that I started First Responder Families. I want to help First Responder Families get to a better place.

If you are dealing with a child exhibiting signs of secondary stress, please know that it is not your fault. This is common in First Responder families and something that your family can get through. I can give you the tools and strategies to help your family right now. Please visit the resources section at to learn more.

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