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The Tricky Transition: Tips on Re-Entry for First Responder Families

Picture this:

Your first responder (firefighter, police officer, paramedic, nurse, etc.) has been on shift for 4+ days, and they finally get home. They think their children will be so excited to see them that they will drop everything they do to greet them as they enter the door. 

But that's not what happens at all...

Instead, their only welcoming committee is the family pet. Their children continue playing, chatter amongst themselves, and barely notice that their parent has just come home from a long shift. This scene has played out so often in our homes that we have lost count. The kids have become so accustomed to being with the default parent daily that reconnection is strained or nonexistent. If you have landed in this corner of the internet, you’ve most likely experienced a similar situation with your first responder, and they have mixed emotions after being out of the home. It is completely normal, and you are not the first to have experienced it. Know that you're not alone.  We call it "The Tricky Transition." Today, we're sharing some tips to help ease your first responder's reentry into the home. Let's dive in!

"The Tricky Transition" Tips for Re-Entry for First Responder Families

First, you must stay connected while they are on shift. It can be tricky but not impossible. Here's a little taste of another blog post we wrote about this subject: KEEP IN TOUCH

With the introduction of smartphones and communication apps, staying in touch with your firefighter while he is away is much easier than ever. If time and data service allow, schedule a regular Facetime or phone call date between your family and your first responder. This will help you stay connected so your first responder doesn’t feel like an outsider upon returning home. 

For other tips and tricks on staying connected with your first responder while on their regular shift, read 6 Ways To Stay Connected With Your Firefighter.

Preparing Your Children for "The Tricky Transition" Talk about it. I don’t know about you, but when my kids hear that their dad is coming home soon, they ask questions. Where has Dad been? How big was the fire? Was anyone hurt? Is dad okay? I’m so frustrated because Dad missed my (insert life-changing event here). Is he going to miss my next one? Wow, that’s a lot of questions, right? However, once I answer them, my boys are less anxious and more excited to see their dad walk through that door.

Your child will likely have many questions and concerns about what their parent has been up to on their shift. Give them permission to ask and provide a safe space to express their feelings. Answer their questions as openly and honestly as you can. And remember, “I don’t know, let’s talk to mom/dad when they get home!” is a perfectly acceptable response.

Red Flag Warnings: A few years ago, a fire was about 30 miles from our hometown. Drift smoke had come into the area, hiding the sun from view. I didn’t think of it and prepared to take my kids to school. As we entered the parking lot that morning, my teenage son proclaimed, “ I can’t do it today, Mom.” An odd proclamation is coming from him because he is a straight-A student and hates missing school. I asked him what was happening, and he said that he couldn’t handle all of the questions he would receive from his peers about the fire and that he just needed to go home. I had no idea that he was under any stress at all.

My point in telling you this story is that kids handle stress differently than adults. They probably don’t know that they are stressed, let alone what to do with all those emotions. And you, their parent, likely don’t know either. So here are a few red flags to look for:

  • They are misbehaving more than usual

  • They're waking up in the middle of the night from nightmares,

  • Eating habits have drastically changed,

  • They cannot get to sleep or sleep more than usual

Offer your child as much support as you can. If, after you have done all you can to ease their stress, the problem persists, please consider seeking the advice of their pediatrician or family therapist.

The “New Normal”  I tend to be a little more lax on the day-to-day rules when our firefighter is away. We usually limit video games to one hour per day, but when our firefighter is gone, I extend that time sometimes to a few hours. Mama has work to do, and it holds their attention long enough for me to accomplish more than one task. Sometimes, we eat ice cream for dinner because I don't like to cook every night, and the kids need a treat. #firewifelife am I right?

So here’s the thing: if rules and routines have changed since your first responder has been at work, prepare your children for how their every day may change again now that their other parent will be home.

Prepare for the transition. A while back, we said he would take vacation days at least every three weeks during fire season to make it easier for our kids to know when their dad would come home. I use a countdown board to show how many days until Daddy’s vacation. When it gets close to the time he will be home, I start talking to my kids about what they may want to share, what happened, or what they did while dad was away. This way, they already have something to talk to Dad about when he gets home. 

Our boys decided they wanted to learn to surf a few fire seasons ago, so we bought everyone a surfboard. When he comes home, the first day is spent surfing and reconnecting at the beach. My husband also makes pancakes on his first day back. I let that be something special for him to do for the kids, so I never make pancakes while he is gone.

Find an activity to do as a family to reconnect with each other. Have your kids prepare things to tell or show your firefighter what they’ve been up to while he’s away.

Preparing Yourself For The Tricky Transition

The children aren’t the only ones experiencing a transition. You and your First Responder are too. 

Emotions Are A Mixed Bag.  OMG, sometimes, when my husband is headed home from a shift, I panic. I wonder if he will be ready to see us when he comes home. Did he experience anything that he’ll need to talk about? Were there any close calls? How will I help him reintegrate? How long will he be home? I think it might be better if he stayed away when all those questions begin. I’m not excited for his return.

Feeling something other than excitement for your first responder coming home is okay. You may be nervous or worried about what it will be like to have them home again. It’s OK to feel that way. Sometimes, talking about it with your firefighter can help. Be honest and communicate how you are feeling.

Accept the Change.  During the end of fall and winter, I have time to spend with my husband when he isn’t on duty because it’s a slow work season for me.  Now that it is spring and wedding season is ramping up, I will have a lot of work. I can’t just run to the beach with him or spend the entire day watching Netflix. Life doesn’t stop while he is on shift, and routines change even when on extended duty.  

Regardless of how long your first responder has been away, the passage of time means that things won’t be the same as when they left. It is best to focus on embracing “the new normal” rather than trying to recreate the past. Remember that it may take a few days to get back in the swing of things. Be patient with your first responders as they navigate this new territory.

Express Don’t Repress I used to think I had to keep my feelings locked up to protect my first responder. I never wanted him to feel responsible for my anxiety or drama. Until one day, he told me he needed me to share so that he felt connected to me.

PLEASE do not keep your feelings locked away for your first responder. It is vital to communicate how you feel, whether with your firefighter or a trusted friend. Let it out.


After a demanding shift, the transition back home for first responders isn't always smooth. Yet, even with the challenges, there is an opportunity for connection. Do you want some more insight into "the tricky transition"? Listen to our podcast episode, Re-Entry with Dr. Kristy De Leon.

We'd love to hear from you! How do you navigate the transition and reconnect as a family when your first responder returns home?

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