How to survive with young kids and a FIFO husband

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Dear Angie, I am a mother of two small children aged three and four, and my husband currently does FIFO roster of 9/5. My 4-year-old daughter is having trouble coping with her father being away and we are concerned that we don’t know how to deal appropriately with her anxiety. She misses him terribly (as we all do) but she seems to take it the hardest. We make sure that my husband spends dedicated time with both of the kids when he is home and he speaks to them every day on the phone when he is away. How can we make this situation work?

My first thought is to wonder what you mean by your daughter’s ‘trouble coping’ and what you mean by ‘anxiety’.  You don’t mention any specific behaviours, but I assume that a four-year-old who was having trouble coping with her dad being away would be doing things like crying, clinging and telling you she was missing her dad.

It is normal for children to miss their dad when he is away, and is a sign that their relationship is good. Anxiety, while still normal, is worrying for parents and may be distressing for all the family if not handled appropriately.

Anxiety is a normal and common emotion that everyone faces at one time or another. People usually feel anxious when they are faced with a difficult or unfamiliar task or situation. As childhood is full of unfamiliar situations, anxiety is very common in children. Anxiety becomes a problem for children (as for adults) when it gets in the way of normal daily activities such as eating, sleeping or doing what needs to be done (i.e. going to kindy).

Symptoms of anxiety range from a slight feeling of discomfort (like butterflies in the tummy) to intense feelings of fear and panic that have people wanting to run and hide. Behaviours that indicate anxiety in children are things like:

  • Excessive and repetitive crying and clinging.
  • Repeated difficulty getting to sleep or waking in the night and being unable to settle back down to sleep.
  • Talking repeatedly or excessively about a particular worry or concern.
  • Inability or difficulty settling into and enjoying play.
  • Needing to repeat certain behaviours or words again and again.
  • Headaches or tummy aches that do not seem to have any physical cause (it is important to note that although there seems to be no physical cause, headaches and tummy aches associated with anxiety are not made up – they actually do have a tummy ache or headache, but it is caused by psychological not physical problems)
  • Appearing to ‘go backwards’ in development (i.e. frequently wanting to be fed when they usually feed themselves or repeatedly wetting or soiling their pants (day or night) when they have been toilet trained for some time)
  • Withdrawal from or disinterest in activities or people.
  • Excessive shyness.

From reading this list and thinking about your daughter, do you think that she is actually suffering from anxiety, or is it more a case of her missing her dad and feeling sad about this (which would be normal given the circumstances)?

Either way, the following suggestions may be helpful:

1. Allow your child to talk about how she misses her dad, and offer an extra cuddle when she is feeling sad. Try to avoid saying things like “be brave” or “don’t be silly” because your daughter may come to hide her feelings away from you, thinking that you are not interested or that they are unacceptable feelings to talk about. This can result in normal feelings becoming problematic. Allow her to talk about her feelings to you, have a cuddle for a few minutes and then ask “can you think of anything that might help you feel a bit better”, and if nothing comes up suggest some things like writing a letter to daddy, drawing a picture, listening to some music, watching something on television, going out for play, doing some cooking or another sort of enjoyable activity. This sends your child the message that feelings can be talked about, and also that there are things you can do to help yourself feel better and take your mind off of sad thoughts. 

2. Have a think about when your daughter started having trouble coping and see if you can think of anything else that changed around that time. Have there been any other changes in the family, such as other people coming or going, or changes to daily routines (starting kindy, visitors leaving, any illness or accidents)? If you can think of something, try talking to your child about this and asking them about their feelings and thoughts about whatever happened. Here is an example of how to do this: “I’ve been thinking about how upset you’ve been getting and I’ve noticed that you started to cry more often around the same time as your brother starting childcare. Did you feel sad or worried about that?” This helps children put some context around what they are feeling and supports them to learn to think more about what sorts of things may contribute to feelings. Sometimes children ‘pin’ their worries on something that seems obvious, when their ‘real’ worries are less obvious things. Other times children are very open to suggestions about what might be going on for them. An example of this would be a child waking at night from a bad dream and someone saying “Are you missing daddy?” or them overhearing an adult conversation that goes something like: “Sarah had a bad dream last night. I think she is missing her dad.”

3. Ask your child directly “what upsets you about daddy going away?” It sounds obvious, but sometimes we forget to ask directly. This sends your child the message that you are interested in what is happening for them. Also, your child may even be able to give you an answer that clarifies her fears or worries for you. You can then answer these fears or worries directly if possible, with clear and truthful answers. Sometimes children at this age have heard or seen a comment that has them worrying unnecessarily. An example of this is a child I know became very worried about her dad getting ‘sick’ and dying. When asked directly, she was able to say that she was worried because he had got sunburnt and she had seen or heard that sunburn causes cancer (her grandfather had died from cancer before she was born). This makes sense but of course the worry is excessive to the actual situation, and this can easily be explained to a child this age.

4. Be very upfront about any concerns that are raised by talking about them honestly and directly. For example, if your child is worried about her dad’s safety while he is way, he should talk through (and show if possible) all the equipment that is worn/used for safety rather than just saying “I’ll be fine”.

5. Maintaining the connection between your daughter and her dad is very important. Phone calls are an important part of this, as are letters and cards and anything else that lets your daughter know that her dad is thinking of her. When he is home, they can make a special bracelet, card, book or other object that she can keep close to her to remind her of her dad. Something that can fit into her pocket can be useful, and some words can be written on it (something like ‘daddy loves you” or “daddy is thinking you”). Anything that reminds her of her dad may be sought out, and it is fine (and normal!) for children to want to carry around or snuggle up to something of his (such as a hanky, t-shirt or other object). There is a lovely book called the Invisible String by Patrice Karst that talks about the special connections between kids and the people they love.  This would be a lovely thing for your husband to read to your daughter when he is home.

On a final note, sometimes children ‘wear’ the anxiety of the family. Are the rest of you coping OK with the current roster? Do you have any worries or concerns that occupy your thoughts when your partner is away? Talking or thinking through your own concerns or worries can indirectly help your child to cope.

If you have a question for our resident psychologist Angie, please click here.

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