My Kids Are Scared of the Police. What Should I Do?
For a parent, nothing is more devastating than feeling unable to keep your children safe. It’s even more difficult when you feel unsafe, too. Add the traumatic loss of a loved one or a member of the community, and the pressure can be overwhelming.
In the social media era, all this is compounded by the callousness of strangers and uninformed online commentators who shout out their opinions from across the social and cultural divide.
If your children have felt mistrust, grief, and fear in the wake of recent police violence, you may be feeling helpless, hopeless and angry.
Yet despite your feelings of vulnerability and isolation, it’s up to you to reassure your children and restore a feeling of safety.
At the same time, you need to carefully guide them on skills to help them survive a tense encounter with a police officer in the future.
Police and Trust
Good policing is built on mutual trust. In the ideal world, police and communities would work together to keep families and neighborhoods safe for all. When that trust breaks down, it has a ripple effect, and the world becomes less safe both for communities and the police who serve them.
When the good faith underpinning effective policing isn’t there, the community and the police often act like enemies. Policing looks more like a military occupation, on both sides of the thin blue line.
Police don’t feel safe in the communities they patrol and adopt a defensive stance, while citizens fear getting caught in the crossfire. In some neighborhoods, even crime victims don’t feel safe going to the police. That encourages crime because citizens feel the need to take matters into their own hands and use violence to solve their own problems.
Likewise, economic cuts have reduced police ranks and training in some areas, and without backup and specialized skills, officers rely more on force. Poverty, resource scarcity, and an increasingly threadbare social safety net intensify these tensions, with tragic results all around.
Systemic racism, entrenched economic inequality and the militarization of police forces have driven some communities into the mindset of a state of war. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have brought this reality into the palms of everyone’s hands.
The public may be traumatized by the endless repetition of violent images, but the reality for many people is that a zip code or a skin color can make the world a more dangerous place for them. Against this backdrop, parents must teach their children to feel safe but also equip them with the facts about living in the world today.
What You Can Do
Here are seven ways to start improving how your children feel about and relate to local police officers.
Limit Media Exposure
You can’t (and you shouldn’t if you could) control everything your children hear and see. You can limit the time they spend in front of screens. Take care of yourself as well and don’t overconsume emotionally demanding material.
Don’t feel obligated to look at everything, especially if you are personally impacted. Repeated viewings of violent images impacts the brain as though a single act of violence has occurred multiple times, amplifying the trauma.
Likewise, limit the time your family spends on these negative issues. Balance it with positive engagement, recreation and family time. It may be hard to relax and have fun when your heart is with the victims, but it will help you and your children find the space to process events and find a place of balance.
Get the Facts Straight
Find out what your children know. Children pick up ideas at school, online and everywhere they go.
Help them form an [age-appropriate understanding](http://www.nasponline.org/Documents/Resources%20and%20Publications/Handouts/Safety%20and%20Crisis/talkingviolence.pdf? hstc=23243621.7caa8b9b20dcbe905f6eefd9a13e5600.1468875597683.1469038398824.1469046059805.7& hssc=23243621.3.1469046059805&__hsfp=3341061125) of events.
Be honest, but spare the details. Let children know they can share absolutely anything with you.
Find Positive Role Models
Talk to positive authority figures in your community, church or school. Point out all of the people who help keep your children safe and value them.
Talk about the role police officers play in keeping the community safe, and stress that it’s wrong for anyone to use violence casually.
Separate the actions of bad actors from the helpful role police officers can play in a community.
Stories help us understand life’s most difficult moments.
Find examples of people who have faced difficulties and overcome loss and tragedy.
Just knowing that others have lived through harrowing events and made it through OK can make all the difference.
Ask your church, school or neighborhood group to organize a forum or panel where children can ask questions and express their feelings and thoughts.
Invite a friendly representative from the local police department or a retired officer from the community. It may be easier for kids to talk and ask questions with the support of their peers.
Some shy children may never articulate their biggest fears, but they can learn the answers to questions they may be afraid to ask.
As you would for any potentially dangerous situation, prepare your children to engage respectfully with police officers. Teach them which behaviors they have the right to expect from an officer of the law, but also help them see things from the officer’s point of view.
Discuss body language that indicates the officer’s level of tension or anxiety. If children are afraid, it’s even more important to talk through the mechanics of a routine encounter so they don’t panic at the worst time.
People who respect the law deserve to be respected in turn, and even people who break the law have a right to basic humanity. Though this ideal isn’t always realized, it’s a principle worth emphasizing again and again. Helping children feel safe and secure is the best armor you can give them for living without fear alongside police in a world where violence can erupt without warning.
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