Shift Happens: Reconnecting As A First Responder Family

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As First Responder Spouses we welcome home our First Responder. We sigh a breath of relief when we hear our First Responder enter our home, knowing they are safe another shift.

We are looking forward to high fiving him at the door, needing relief after long hours of solo parenting. Our kids rush to greet them as they too have been eagerly awaiting his return.

Our First Responder is exhausted. Walking through the door has alerted his body he is safe. He has entered his sanctuary, safe from the dangers and threats of the outside world. Physiologically, he is on the spiral downward and crashing. The adrenaline and cortisol that pumped through his system on shift to keep him alert to perform, has now led his body to crash. 

Shift work is hard on First Responder Families and reuniting after shift can be harder leading to fighting and communication breakdown.  Each family member will have different needs and this time can be a bust.  

Our First Responder can come home looking for space. He might not want to be touched or spoken with. The noises of daily family life can be so much louder to him as his body is coming down.

Children and spouses might feel rejected as their desire to connect with himis dashed. Spouses might struggle with resentment if their partner needs alone time as they likely do as well. High emotions, unmet needs and dashed expectations can lead to a catalyst of high stress in the home.

Couple Conversation

I always recommend First Responder Couples set aside time on a day off, get a babysitter if needed, go for a walk (as moving the body releases stress) and hold an open discussion. Seek a win -win, where each person listens to really hear each other,  to understand their partner rather than to be understood. Keep defensiveness on the downlow.  If you notice you are getting defensive, take a bathroom break, do deep breathing and ground yourself. Use “I” language to communicate so the other person does not feel attacked. Instead of  words like “should, never or always” speak vulnerably from your heart, sharing what you feel and need. For example “I feel rejected when you do not greet me when you get home. I need you to greet me by looking in my eyes, saying hello and communicating with me what you need”. Your partner might say “I feel exhausted when I get home. I need to have quiet, less stimulation greeting me and time to get undressed and have a shower to adjust to being home before I can really engage”. 

Sometimes it can be difficult to have these conversations on our own. It is not your fault. In these situations, having a family, marital therapist or mediator can be a gift. This trained professional can help you both create strategies in helping you stay grounded, so you can speak from your prefrontal cortex rather than hulk mode in your limbic system. This person can mediate a solution to  stay on the path of hearing each other and staying the course to find a win-win. 

When we are on the same page as a First Responder Couple we can then invite our children into the conversation to hear their needs and create a family plan.

Connect as a Family

Following your couple meeting, hold a family discussion where each family member can express their needs, expectations and responsibilities to help turn this greeting time into a more peaceful time in your first responder family home. 

It is important to first understand each other and then to build a strategy to be an intentional First Responder Family. When we have an awareness of what we are doing well, or what is causing harm, we can plan to connect positively and more intentionally in the future.

This is the 3 step plan that I recommend:

1.  Strengths

Start with talking about your First Responder Family’s strengths. What do you already do well as a First Responder Family when you reunite at the end of shift? Write those down to see how you can do these more consistently in your plan. 

2.  Communicate 

Hold space to hear each family member and validate their feelings and experiences. You can say that sounds hard, tell me more about that.. This is the time to gather information to problem solve and to value each family member. Keep this space safe by listening to each other and not reacting to each other. Do not comment with your opinion, defense or a judgement statement. If needed, in order to stay calm, take a fifteen minute break, have a walk, something to eat and then gather back together. Listen, gather and write down what each family member states as their needs. You can have the statement written out for them to fill in if it’s helpful: I feel…. When… I need….. 

3.  Strategy

Now we talk strategy. We build our First Responder Family map outlining what will lead to a successful family reunion following a shift for our family. 

The biggest question to keep asking family members is “what would you be willing to try”?

Some First Responder Families I work with choose to greet at a park, playground or outside. Their First Responder calls them when they are close, and the family meets them at the location. The nature, fresh air and physical activity has worked for these families to have a reentry together with less stimulation. The First Responder might have already changed and join in on the bike ride or playing soccer at the park with their family. Physical activity releases the stress chemicals of cortisol and adrenaline from our First Responder’s system. 

Other families have worked out a system that from the moment the door opens,  the First Responder has prepped himself and delights in his family hugging, smiling and looking them in the eye for a minute. The First Responder then communicates what he needs, as each shift is different. Having a ritual or routine can be helpful for everyone to know what to expect. Our First Responder might decide to go have a shower, change, quiet time to meditate, devotion, read, an activity to help them calm and ground to being home before re-engaging with their family.

Remember, It’s Not Personal

As a First Responder family, it’s important to reframe your thoughts. Remind yourself that it’s not personal.  This is about physiology, it  is not about love. It is about neuroscience and chemicals in the brain. It is a natural reaction that happens following the work our First Responder does and trauma they witness on their shift.


Keep the family dialogue open. Hold follow up meetings as needed to talk about what is working well and what could be readjusted. It takes awhile to find your unique strategy, for your unique family. It might also change as your family changes, different seasons, events, etc...First Responder Families are adaptable. You can do it. Do not give up. Keep talking. Keep listening. Stay focused on solutions and not the obstacles. Keep going. You got this!

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