By Angie Willcocks, Mining Family Matters Psychologist
Parents who work away often wonder what they can do to ensure their kids aren't negatively affected by the lifestyle. Here’s the answer: stay interested in your children's lives.
Sure, there are extra little tips and techniques that can help when you're working in the middle of nowhere for weeks at a time. But at the end of the day any tips will count for nothing if you're not really interested in your kids. Real interest breeds real connection which leads to strong relationships, whether you work 10 minutes or 10 hours away.
Some parents say it's hard to be interested in what's going on back home when they're away for days or weeks at a time. They complain that their kids are terrible at talking on the phone or video conferencing, and only offer single-word answers. While this is often true, it generally comes down to the questions! Here's an example:
Parent: “Hi, did you have a good day?”
Parent: “What did you get up to?”
Child: “Not much”
Parent: “How was school?”
Parent: “What else is new?”
Parent: “OK, sleep well.”
Sound familiar? This style of conversation is quite typical (and not just when a parent works away!) It might sound harsh, but laziness on the part of the parent is the main factor. It's "connection" without really being interested, and it's likely to leave both parties feeling pretty let down.
Conversations based on genuine interest are much more satisfying. Just think of the last time you talked to someone who wasn't really interested in you or what you've been up to ... and now think of the last time you talked to someone who was. Which would you prefer? Well, your kids feel the same way.
I know it can be hard to stay in the loop when you physically aren't around. But make a pact with yourself not to use working away as an excuse. Parents who work away just have to make an extra special effort to keep up-to-date about their child’s activities. The best way to do this is to keep a detailed diary, with all sorts of information such as school terms, important tests or exams, weekly spelling tests, appointments and social events. If possible, use an electronic diary and show your partner and kids how to add important events in as well.
Keeping (and using) a detailed diary will help you to ask your children relevant and detailed questions while you're away, so those phone conversations flow more easily. Remember, vague questions like “how was your day” are likely to prompt maddening comebacks like “good” or “OK”. By asking specific, relevant questions, you're likely to get much more information and a much more passionate response. For example: “You had a pretty busy weekend, with your school concert on Friday, then sport and Sam's party on Saturday. What did you get up to Sunday?" That’s a much better conversation starter than "Did you have a good weekend?"
Closed questions require a “yes” or “no” answer and tend to shut the conversation down. Examples are: "Did Tess come over?” or “Did you go out for dinner?” Try to keep your questions open ended. Examples are: “What sorts of questions were in your science test?” or “Where did you end up going on Friday night?” Think 'who', 'when', 'why' and 'what' for open-ended questions, even something as simple as "What made you laugh at school today?" These open out the conversation, and encourage the flow of information.
Maintaining interest and a real connection with your kids will also help with discipline (and I know this is another area where some parents struggle). Interest, connection and discipline go hand in hand – you can't just expect your child to do as you say if you're disconnected and uninvolved in their life. They might appear to be under your authority, but your rules will be discarded as soon as you turn your back (which obviously isn't ideal if you work away!)
Generally speaking, parents who can effectively discipline their kids have good relationships that they've fostered over time. If you’ve maintained a connection while away, you will be able to back up any decisions you make with informed reasons.
Also, remember that all 'working away' families with children over the age of four should have a visible calendar that shows their parents' routines. Use drawings or symbols on the calendar so the kids can learn to check in for themselves.
Finally, here are my main pointers at a glance...
If you have children at school, it can work well to organize your roster so you arrive during the week. That way you can spend your first day back resting and unwinding, rather than being swamped by their demands.
- Keep a detailed diary of your children's activities, and a calendar at home.
- Ask specific, interested and open questions.
- Text teenage kids while you’re away. A thoughtful 'good morning' goes a long way in nurturing a relationship.
- Don’t just indulge your kids when you’re home. Send the occasional card, toy or other gift while you're away too. I know of one Dad who sent flowers to his daughter's school on her 10th birthday. Her friends knew he worked away, and this gesture let them all know he was thinking of her even when he wasn't home. (Obviously, check with the school before going ahead this sort of plan!)
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.