Q&A: Helping your child to understand FIFO

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Q: Hi Angie, My husband works a two-weeks-on and two-weeks-off roster. I often wonder if this causes any psychological problems with my son who is 4½. His Dad is fantastic with him when he comes home and spends a good two weeks with him, but I think he is too young to understand why his Dad has to leave him all the time. Any advice?

A: Hi and thanks for your email.

I wonder from your comment whether your son is showing any sorts of behaviours that have caused you to worry about psychological problems? I’d be interested to know if there are particular behaviours that are worrying you. Other than that, if your son seems happy most of the time, is reaching developmental milestones OK, eats and sleeps 'normally (normal is a broad band for kids his age!) and is able to play and generally enjoy life, then it is highly unlikely that he is developing any psychological problems from his Dad being away. Kids are actually quite resilient and accept a wide range of lifestyles without question provided that the adults in their life are coping OK and that there is a fair degree of predictability in their life.

In terms of your son not understanding why his Dad has to leave him all the time, in all honesty kids don’t (and don’t need to thankfully) understand most of why adults do what they do! They just go along with it and accept the situation as a given and look to the adults in their life for cues about whether or not what is happening is scary or stressful or not.

This said, though, I would like to make a suggestion that you have a think about how you talk to your son about Dad going away. It is not actually about his Dad leaving him it is about his Dad going to work. They are only words but how things are talked about makes a big difference to a four year old because they are very, very literal.

By the age of four and a half most children have the capacity (sort of) to understand that people work to get money and that money is necessary to buy things like food and clothes. Talking to your son about this is an important first step if you haven’t already done so. Show your son this in your daily life by showing him how you need to pay for food and explain where the money comes from. Next explain what Daddy’s work is and explain that Daddy gets paid to work. Also explain that Daddy’s work is so far away. Explaining that he can’t get there and back in one day so he has to fly there and stay there is important because it shows that Daddy is not choosing to not come home. You may have already done most of this, but it is very important to make it about Daddy going to work, not leaving him. Keep the emphasis always on Daddy going to work and Daddy coming home from work.

Other suggestions:

  • A family trip to the mine, if appropriate, is great for this age because kids get to really experience how far it is to get to Daddy’s work and get to see where Dad sleeps etc.
  • Encourage your son and his Dad to keep the connection going even when they are apart. Picture books such as You, Me and the Rainbow (Petrea King) and The Invisible String are great for this age. 
  • The Daddy Book by Todd Parr is good for showing all sorts of different daddies. Your son and his dad could make their own picture books together about each other (The Daddy Book and The Jack Book for example). Include all sorts of information about themselves, like hair colour, music they like, favourite food etc.  and that Daddy works far away. This helps encourage the idea that work is part of life but not all of life.

I hope all this helps. You might also get some ideas from my column on helping children to cope. Good luck!

To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.

Angie Willcocks is a registered psychologist with a private practice in Adelaide – for details about Skype consultations please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. She’s an expert in tackling issues such as depression, anxiety, postnatal depression, child sleep routines and relationship difficulties. She has a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Psychology and a Masters of Counselling Psychology. She is also the co-author of The Sensible Sleep Solution: a guide to sleep in your baby’s first year, which can be ordered from her website www.angiewillcocks.com.