By Angie Willcocks, Mining Family Matters psychologist
People do fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) for all sorts of reasons, and in my experience those who have kids don't make the decision lightly.
I'm frequently asked if children are negatively affected when one parent works away, and what can be done to help the kids cope. It's a hard question to answer. There are so many factors to consider: the impact of particular rosters; the age of the children; and the level of personal/practical support available to the family.
It’s true that lots can be done to build resilience in children generally, and I have some tips of my own to help kids cope when one parent works away. Here they are:
1. Be consistent with expectations, discipline and routines
All children benefit from knowing what is expected of them, and to know (more or less) what any given day will look like. Kids thrive on predictability.
I have seen some kids who struggle with a parent working away, and many of these kids live in homes where things are very different when the parent is away, compared to when they're home. These kids get confused about what is expected of them, and can end up showing this with misbehaviour. Of course there will be slight differences in how things are done if the FIFO parent is home (someone different doing the school run and night-time reading, for example). But it's important that general routines and expectations stay the same.
Sometimes I think the FIFO lifestyle makes it easier for couples to just 'ignore' differences in their parenting styles. The danger is that they change what is expected of the kids rather than addressing the real issue, which is between the parents. This is unfair on the kids and will backfire in the long run.
Work together as parents to find some common ground for your child’s sake. Look for further information or support if you're not sure what is reasonable for children of their age.
2. Create a set of family rules
Following on from the first point, this strategy is about making expectations very clear in the way of family rules. This works well for families with kids over about five years of age. The rules can cover things like using manners, daily jobs such as making beds, and also some fun ones like 'have pizza once a week'. The rules should definitely be created when the whole family is together, with rules for everyone (including Mum and Dad).
Some families add in points about FIFO, like "Dad cooks dinner on his second night home" or "no waking Mum up before 8am on Saturday ". Family rules are a fun way of demonstrating that Mum and Dad (or Mum and Grandma or whoever makes up your family) are on the same page, no matter who is home. It's a good idea to stick the rules somewhere visible and add in drawings or pictures for early readers. Re-visit the rules every three months or so.
And don’t forget the golden rule of FIFO: the rules stay the same whether you’re all together or one parent is away!
3. Be organized
Keep a family calendar with the FIFO parent's roster in a format that the kids can understand. Stickers work well for young children, but try to avoid 'smiley face' and 'sad face' related to Mum or Dad being home or away. Add in important events for all the family, and don't forget to include those for the FIFO parent.
4. Let your children express their feelings
It can undoubtedly be tough when a parent works away, and sometimes your kids will struggle. At these times it's important to remember that coping well doesn't mean always feeling happy about the way things are. In fact, some hardship is necessary for developing resilience. If your kids are sad about Mum/Dad being away and missing an important event, let them know you understand their feelings. Use simple language: "I know you're really sad that Dad/Mum won't be here for your birthday this year." Allow some time for the feelings and give an extra hug or two, and then move on to talking about how the situation can be handled. For example: "Should we have a special birthday dinner for you when Dad/Mum gets home?"
5. Model good coping strategies
Like your children, you will have days when you struggle to cope with FIFO - and that applies whether you're the home or away parent. It's important that your kids see you problem-solve your way through the tough times, rather than just be defeated by them.
Sometimes children ‘wear’ the anxiety of their family. Make sure you regularly reassess whether you’re personally coping with the lifestyle – and chat over any fears or problems with a trusted loved one. Talking or thinking through these concerns will indirectly help your child to cope.
And now some specific tips for the working away parent...
1. Work hard to stay connected while you're away
It's very normal for you to miss your children, and for them to miss you while you're away. Many FIFO workers do find it tough, and so they withdraw a bit emotionally while they're at work. (It's the 'out of sight, out of mind' approach to coping). While this might make it easier for you, it's not the best strategy for your family. If you can work on staying connected to your children while you're away, it will definitely work better for them – and also for you in the long run.
Some families stay connected with phone calls, video calls, email or text messages. If these forms of communication don't work well from your work, you'll need to put more thought into it. Try letters, leaving little notes around the house, or pre-organising deliveries for special occasions.
2. Show an interest by keeping up-to-date with your children’s lives
It's not OK to use FIFO as an excuse for ignorance about your kids' lives. Make it your priority to know what is going on and when. Keep a calendar or diary with up-to-date information about your children, like dentist appointments, school projects and due dates, and sports games.
You'll be surprised how the phone or video call conversations are so much more satisfying for both of you when you shift from "so what did you get up to today?" (answer: "nothing much.") to relevant and thoughtful questions based on your knowledge and interest in your children's lives. And be persistent – interest builds interest!
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.