By Angie Willcocks, Mining Family Matters psychologist
Adolescence is confusing for kids at the best of times. They fluctuate between wanting to be emotionally close to their parents, and needing to be emotionally distant, and this can happen several times a day!
When one parent works away, this can complicate things even more, because your teenager can't choose when to be close and when to be distant. They might miss you desperately when you’re away, but ignore you when you’re home. The trick here is to watch your own thinking: ignore thoughts like "She doesn’t even notice if I’m away or home", which are likely to have you pulling back. Instead, think "I am her parent, she loves me and I will be available to her". Might be tough, but it will help you to take things less personally.
There’s no doubt that teenagers can seem pretty selfish. Everything is about them. To an extent they can’t help it, as brain development at this age means they are not really inclined to bother about the feelings of others. As a rule, if they want to hang out with you, they expect you to be available. But if you want to spend time with them because it’s your week home, they might not be around.
It’s important, then, to be clear about family expectations and rules, and not be too bothered if your teenager isn’t keen on participating.
For example, as a FIFO family you might have a rule that the teenager will watch a movie with the family at least once a week; will help out with jobs that need doing when Mom/Dad is away; and will cook breakfast for everyone on the weekend.
Some FIFO parents feel guilty or sorry for their kids, and so expect less of them. Strangely enough, this can be bad for a child’s self esteem. Although they won’t thank you for it now, encouraging and expecting your teenager to take part in family activities is not only good for them, it’s great for setting up opportunities for communication.
Communication with teenagers is doubly hard when you work away, too. But contrary to popular belief, most teenagers do want good relationships with their family members – they often just don't have great relationship skills.
As the parent, you need to assume responsibility for the tone of the relationship with your teenager, especially if you’ve made the decision to work away. Create multiple opportunities for conversations. It’s a mistake to think they will talk to you ‘on demand’ or if something is bothering them. Just be available as much as possible.
When you’re home, make sure you’re the one who drives them around, goes to their sports and helps out with their homework.
Practise active listening (lots of eye contact, smiling and encouraging noises like ‘aha’).
Don’t be lazy, or use working away as an excuse for not knowing what’s going on in your child’s life. Keep a diary of important events and school activities, and call or text regularly so your teen knows that you are interested in what’s going on. (Remember, “What did you buy for Sally’s birthday present?” is likely to encourage a much longer answer than “How was your day?”)
Likewise, be as available as possible when you’re away. Use technology like text messaging and video calls, and leave short written notes in their bedroom to let them know you are thinking of them (especially if you will be away for an important event).
Mining Family Matters aims to break down the barriers of isolation and the stresses of living away from family and friends. Although this website provides general advice from a psychologist, the content should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. Always speak to your doctor or specialist provider for advice on a specific medical condition. If you are depressed and require urgent assistance, call 9-1-1 or visit the Canadian Mental Health Association website at www.cmha.ca.
Psychologist Angie Willcocks is an expert at helping families deal with the pressures of life in mining, oil and gas. To ask Angie a question, write via our 'contact us' page. It’s free! And to read other Angie articles, please click here.