Is FIFO to blame for my child's anxiety? Thankfully, the answer is 'no'

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Deb Russo is a FIFO wife of the offshore kind. Her husband works on oil rigs and vessels. Typically, he does a four-week-on and four-week-off roster. They've lived their entire 14-year relationship like this. Initially Deb's husband was in the Navy, then he shifted to work in the mines and did the 28/7 roster (Deb's least favourite!) With this offshore roster, though, she wouldn’t change a thing.


"The main problems that are usually presented to me with FIFO families aren't about anxiety or even separation anxiety – they are something completely different. So, seeing you is refreshing," she said, smiling. "I haven’t met a FIFO family who has adjusted quite so well before." 

I was sitting next to her – a tall, Danish psychiatrist. My husband and a social worker were also sitting with us at the kitchen table. They were from the state Health Department – a mental health team on a home visit to see my darling middle boy, who is suffering anxiety and sleep issues and has been showing signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. 

Initially it was manageable, but in recent months it's been getting increasingly out of hand. One night after a meltdown, we decided this was beyond us. We needed help. And we needed to know if FIFO was to blame.

To hear that FIFO wasn't the cause was such a huge relief, and I told her so. 

"Often," she said, "it's how the parents handle it. If mum has issues, the kid generally has issues. It flows on."

I smiled again, because it has always been our belief that how we handle it is how the kids will handle it. To be told as much by a professional was like gold and it made me sit straighter in my chair.

She said FIFO kids sometimes developed behavioural issues, usually brought on by mum not being strong or firm enough as the sole parent at home. The kids walked all over her, or she didn't follow through on discipline, that sort of thing. Sometimes it was circumstantial but other times mum had no support from dad (and sadly, most often it was the latter).

She said the most crucial period, especially for boys, was between 6-11 years of age. This was the time when boys would look to a role model on how to treat women, and the cues usually came from dad. So, having a good, supportive relationship with dad was vital.

She said it was also important to have a second role model (not to replace dad, but to reinforce those important life behaviours).

"I’m lucky like that," I told her. "I have the most supportive husband ever." 

I looked over at him and smiled, a lump developing in my throat.

"He is a great role model for the boys, plus my father is pretty hands on when he is here."

"That’s great," she said, "So tell me how you manage, because obviously you do well." 

So I told her how we survive this FIFO life – with strong routines, honesty, communication, consequences and being on the same page.

"I can’t say we are perfect, because otherwise we wouldn’t need your help," I said. "But what you talked about just now is why I am so firm with the boys, because there are three of them and with just one of me, so I can’t afford a mutiny!"

As a young mum, I was very firm about consequences and routines. I bent the rules a little, but never so far that I wasn’t consistent. We also backed each other as parents, even if we didn’t agree on what the other had done. We dealt with disagreements behind closed doors.

"You've both done a good job," she said. "But your son's anxiety has nothing to do with your lifestyle. I think it’s been brought on by various things that have happened in the last year and he just needs more time to process it all." 

We discussed things further and agreed on how to treat B2’s troubles.

All the while I sat there smiling with relief that this wasn’t caused by the FIFO lifestyle, or something I had failed to address. It was simply (and very sadly) because last year was a doozy for losing family. Factor in his age and sensitive personality it was "bound to happen".

In the long run, I think this will benefit him and the rest of us as a family. We are stronger for having had to go through it.

"Just continue doing what you’re doing," she said. And that's exactly what we've done.


More columns from Oil & Gas Mum Deb Russo:

Check out Deb's daily blog at www.thefifowife.com.au and if you've got any questions for her, please click here.

And here's another oil and gas couple's advice on making FIFO family life work when you're working offshore