I’m a family member or friend

Your support, sacrifice and encouragement

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Advice for family and friends

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We probably don’t need to tell you that your family member of friend is  passionate about their role! 

For some people there is a family history of service, with children following parents and grandparents into the responder or public sector community. For others, doing this role has been an ambition since childhood. Perhaps your person does this on top of their day job.

We understand that shift work and overnight callouts can be challenging and affect the routine of home life and relationships.

Without your support, encouragement and sacrifices, they wouldn’t be able to provide our community with the help they need. We also know that your support is what keeps them well most of the time. So, thank you for all that you do.

We’ve gathered some advice and answers to commonly asked questions below.

Listen to tips for family and friends from Keri, a SAS Paramedic.

Advice for family and friends

How do they cope with what they see and hear?
We call this their Protective Armour and helping people understand how this works is one of the reasons we’ve built this website. It’s not an accident that they’re OK most of the time; there are lots of things that help them deal with the potentially traumatic jobs they encounter. But they’re not invincible and there may be times when things get through this armour.

Have a look at this section of the site to find out more, including why the jobs that remind them of family and friends will be the hardest.
What can I expect after a traumatic incident?
Please have a look at the information on Understanding my reactions to trauma and stress page. You’ll see that after we experience something shocking, our brain is busy trying to make sense of what happened, “processing” the memory so we can reset our alarm system.

This can take days and sometimes weeks to do and while it’s happening people may not be their usual selves. They may be preoccupied or distant, seem irritable, tearful or on edge. They might not sleep well, or you may find them checking the safety of loved ones.

All of these are common and normal reactions to traumatic experiences so try not to worry about them or to feel excluded. With time these reactions should settle down and if they don’t, there are things that will help.
Will they want to talk about their experiences?
That depends. Sometimes they won’t be able to talk because of confidentiality, but mostly, it will depend on them and on you.

Some people prefer to leave work at work, as this can help them switch off after a stressful shift and bring their focus to life outside work. Others will find it helpful to talk about what’s happened, and this will be their way of offloading and switching off. We’re all different and that’s OK. It also depends on how much you want to hear about the jobs they attend. And whether you need them to listen to you talking about your day!

What can be tricky is when they (or you) don’t feel able to talk about upsetting incidents. These are the jobs that can be risky to wellbeing because they can take more time to be “processed”, as we explain in Understanding my reactions to trauma and stress. You’ll know your person and should be able to judge if they’re working things out on their own (which is fine) or bottling things up (which can be less helpful).

When we’re troubled by what we’ve experienced it’s common to not want to talk about it because we worry that we’ll pass the distress on and burden someone else.  If they or you don’t feel able to discuss the details of the incident, then that’s OK but perhaps encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling about it.

Remind them about the resources on this site - What can I do it I’m not OK? - and and encourage them to talk to colleagues or someone from one of the support organisations listed on their service specific pages.
They worry about us
Do they check everything’s unplugged at night? Have they worked out how long it should take you to drive home and get concerned if you take longer? Do they worry about a family member who smokes? How are they feeling about a young person learning to drive?

Their role means they know that terrible things happen to anyone, and that life can change in a flash, so they will want to protect the people they care about. This can be frustrating at times, especially for teenage children and independent older relatives but try to understand what lies behind it. If you notice a change in their worrying this may be a sign that they have been affected by an incident at work (see How will I know if I’m not OK?) so let them know and encourage them to access help with this.

Listen to Keri again talking about why responders sometimes nag.
We’re worried about them
Someone you care about, does some of the most dangerous tasks in your community – who wouldn’t be worried about that? It’s totally normal to be concerned for the safety of your loved one. This is especially true when their work requires their complete focus and attention – which means they won’t be free to let you know that they’re okay. This can make it extra tough for the family and friends left at home.

It is important to remember that your person is fully trained to deal with the situations they’ll find themselves in and that this training isn’t just focused on saving lives and resolving crises, it’s focused on keeping them safe, too.  They are constantly assessing their safety and the safety of their colleagues, calculating and mitigating the risks as they proceed.

All of this means that while they’re at work or on a call out, your loved one isn’t just focused on helping and protecting others – they’re also focused on making sure they get home safe to their family.

Children and young people may worry about family members so make sure they know that:
  • Their loved one is trained to keep themselves safe, even as they’re doing what they can to help other people.
  • Even though they’re out helping the community, their number one priority is still getting home safe at the end of their shift.

If you or another family member are worrying so much that it’s affecting your ability to go about your day to day lives, please get some help with this. Have a look at the advice in the Coping and Self-Care section of this website and at the support available on the service specific pages.

Resources for young people
You can find some more information and links to some helpful websites and helplines on our Find Help page under the section: Advice for Parents/Young People/those working with Young People.

The Fire Fighters Charity has produced a story for children who might be worried about their responder parents -The Wolf was Not Sleeping. You can also listen to it here.

The Resilience Alphabet for Kids is a Toolkit of 26 words and activities for children aged 7-12 years of age, to help them build inner strength and resilience. There’s also a Resilience Alphabet toolkit for the 13-16 age group, that can help young people work through and express their feelings and thoughts.

Inside Out and Piper on our More Resources page are lovely films about resilience.

Here’s a message from Matilda (aged 6) whose mummy is a paramedic:

Sometimes mummy works all day but sometimes she has to work all night instead. I miss mummy when she is at work, but I know she is helping poorly people. Sometimes Daddy has to take me to my friends’ birthday parties because mummy is working. He doesn’t like the princess parties very much. I like it when Grandma comes for a sleepover because mummy is working at night. When I see an ambulance I always say ‘Who’s driving mummy’s ambulance’. My friend’s Mummy is a Firefighter and my other friend’s Daddy is a Policeman. I think they are all good jobs who help people. I think I would like a job that helps people when I’m a grown up.
Resources for families
Our friends at Scottish Mountain Rescue have produced a Welcome to the Team booklet for the family and friends of their volunteers.  RNLI have adapted this for their teams and it can be found on their website.

You can find some more information and links to some helpful websites and helplines on our Find Help page under the section: Advice for Parents/Young People/those working with Young People.
How can I help if they’re not OK?
Most people experiencing a problem with their mental health will speak to a friend or family member before they speak to a health professional. You're also the person most likely to notice a change in how they are. They may be more irritable, appear flat or withdrawn. Trust your gut. Ask how they are. Your support will be invaluable.

If someone lets you know that they are experiencing difficult thoughts and feelings, it's common to feel like you don’t know what to do or say – but you don't need any special training to show someone you care about them, and often just listening can be the most valuable help you offer.

Listen. Simply giving someone space to talk and listening to how they’re feeling, without judgement or necessarily trying to offer any solutions, can be really helpful in itself. If they're finding it difficult to open up, let them know that you're there when they are ready.

Offer reassurance. Seeking help can feel lonely, and sometimes scary. You can reassure someone by letting them know that they are not alone, and that you will be there to help.

Stay calm. Even though it might be upsetting to hear that someone you care about is distressed, try to stay calm. This will help your friend or family member feel calmer too, and show them that they can talk to you openly with you.

Be patient. You might want to know more details about their thoughts and feelings, or want them to get help immediately. But it’s important to let them set the pace for seeking support themselves.

Try not to make assumptions. Your perspective might be useful to your friend or family member, but try not to assume that you already know what may have caused their feelings, or what will help.

Keep things normal. Part of the emotional support you offer could be to keep things as normal as possible. This could include involving your friend or family member in social events or chatting about other parts of your lives.

Look after yourself: It can be hard work supporting someone else, especially if you find yourself in a position where the person has confided in you but isn’t ready or willing to access professional support. Or if they're behaving in ways that make them hard to be around. It's important people do things at the pace that is right for them but also for you to be realistic about how much support you can provide.

Remember that small, simple things can help, and that just being there for them is probably helping lots. Please make sure you take time to recharge your own batteries and if you need advice on how you can help your friend or family member, make use of the services on the Find Help pages to get advice and support. You may find our pages I'm worried about someone else of help. 
What support is there for us?
Anyone can access help through the national services listed on the Find Help page and please also make use of the resources on the Coping and Self-Care section of this site.

If you’re a close family member then you may be able to access support from the organisations or charities on their service specific pages.

Your service, your Lifelines

Visit the web pages of Lifelines Scotland Ambulance, Fire & Rescue, Police or Volunteer Responders for extra resources tailored to each service and more information about the specific help available from different organisations.