Maintaining great connections with your kids when you work away

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Working away can be tough when you’ve got a family at home. Once upon a time, men who worked away were expected to ‘suck up’ the tough times and accept a certain level of disconnection from their kids.

Thankfully, things have changed and FIFO workers now see that working away doesn’t have to mean their relationships suffer.

I’m often asked for ideas on how to reconnect with kids after a swing away. The first thing I say is that "reconnecting" is great, but it’s also very important to maintain the connection with your kids as much as possible while you’re away.

Keeping the connection strong while you’re away lowers the pressure to "reconnect" every time you get home. As a parent, you are largely responsible for the connection and it does take some effort. 

Here are some tips for staying connected, and also reconnecting for the different ages.

Babies and toddlers

Staying connected while you’re away is probably hardest with babies and toddlers. They can’t be expected to talk on the phone, and developmentally they are simply not able to understand why and where their parent has gone, and for how long. Very young children need a lot of physical, hands on care, which is simply impossible to be part of while you’re away.

Of course babies and toddlers can’t be expected to tell you what’s been happening for them, so staying connected with them is really about staying up to date with what’s going on by communicating with the ‘home’ parent. As well as any regular contact throughout the swing, many FIFO workers I know like to catch up via email or text message (which is often read on the plane on the way home) about the nitty gritty of what’s happening at home.

This is a good way of getting your mind into home mode before your arrive home. This written communication works well as a quick run-down of practical information, like what’s happening with sleeping, eating etc. and any behavioural changes, as well as acting as a reminder of any upcoming social events. I know this all sounds very business-like, but I’ve seen it work quite well for a number of FIFO families with small children.

Some FIFO workers like to use apps like FaceTime or Skype for face-to-face connection while they’re away. It’s important to understand that babies and toddlers don’t really ‘get’ this, and the contact is more for the adults than the children (which is totally fine). Be wary of putting pressure on the toddler to talk to Mummy or Daddy on the phone, and please don’t expect toddlers to sit and interact with the parent who is away through a screen for more than a minute or so at a time. These expectations are unrealistic for this age group and can lead to disappointment and hurt.

Reconnecting when you get home is really about throwing yourself into looking after your child or children. This is the best way to really be connected with little ones. Babies and toddlers feel connected to those who look after them and take care of their needs, so (like it or not!) this is the fastest way to reconnect with this age group after being away.

It’s easy to take a back seat approach to parenting when you work away, after all it seems obvious that the ‘home’ parent knows more about what’s going on with the kids. Remember that they only ‘know more’ because they’ve had to work it out by trial and error. So muck in, get busy in the day-to-day life of your baby or toddler. It might not seem interesting, but it often becomes more interesting the more you get involved. 

Reconnection also comes from spending time just being with your child. Reading books, playing with toys, singing songs, and having cuddles help you both reconnect. Also, take the opportunity to go along to any activities (like play groups or kinder gym). These days there is usually a mix of mums and dads at any kids' activities, so don’t be shy.

Primary school aged children

Staying connected while you’re away starts to become easier as they get older, because kids this age are starting to understand that adults work to get money, and also how time works.

FIFO families can introduce a calendar with days that Mum or Dad are away marked clearly, and kids can now be expected to talk to the away parent on the phone or via Skype of FaceTime.

Staying connected involves keeping on top of what is happening in your child’s life while you’re away. Keep a diary, and make sure you’re across what’s going on for your child.

Obviously, you’ll still rely on information from the ‘home’ parent, but you can also now engage your child directly by asking them questions. Keep questions open-ended where possible. Open ended questions give you more information because they encourage longer answers (rather than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer). An example of an open ended question is “What are you doing this weekend?”, rather than “Are you playing footy this weekend?” Using open ended questions takes some practice, so keep working on it.

Phone conversations will flow more easily if you know what’s going on in your child’s life.

Primary school children are starting to understand emotions, so feel free to let your child know you’d like to be with them for special events, while still remaining positive about it. For example, “I’m really sad I’ll miss your first footy game, and I can’t wait to hear all about it afterwards. I’ve asked mum to take some photos of you so she’ll send them to me. Next week I’ll be there, which I’m really looking forward to!”

Reconnecting is much easier if you’ve stayed in contact while away. Throw yourself into being involved in the day-to-day running of the children’s lives. Get involved in school activities, sports and socialising while you’re home.

Let your child know you’ve been thinking of them while you’ve been away; by bringing them a small gift (it can be a rock or a pen, nothing extravagant is necessary) and by telling them about specific times you thought of them while you were away. An example of this is “I heard your favourite song on the radio one morning while I was away, and it went around in my head all morning!”

Teenagers

Staying connected with teenagers can be quite easy. Technology is your friend if you have a teenager and work away. In many ways, teenagers are the easiest age group to communicate with, particularly if you’ve done some the hard yards with staying connected in their earlier years. Almost all teens have their own technology, so you can send emails and text messages directly to them. A simple text saying ‘thinking of you’ or ‘good luck today’ goes a very long way to keeping the communication going while you’re away.

Technology can also be used to create or foster shared interests. There are a number of apps available that you can play together; examples are Angry Birds Friends, Trivia Crack, Words with Friends, or Draw Something (for more ideas just Google ‘apps you can play with friends’. Other shared interest are books, movies, TV series, and sports.

Conversations about these topics can happen while you’re home or away, and this can ease the transition from away to home for you both. Be confident and positive and take the lead in this area, and don’t be put off by a bit of teenage reluctance!

Kids this age will have a broader understanding of emotions, so you can also start to share a little bit more about your own feelings while you’re away. An example of this is a text like ‘It’s been a tough swing, I’m tired and can’t wait to get home’. This is about connecting emotionally, but not burdening your child, so keep it simple.

Following on from the previous ages, know what’s going on in your child’s life. Keep a diary so you’re up to date with what’s happening when.

Ask open ended, interested questions (again, this is much easier if you actually know what’s going on in their life!)

Reconnecting with teens continues on from the previous ages, and comes mostly from getting very involved when you’re home. Go along to any activities they’re involved in, and drive them to and from sports and parties. Volunteering to be the chauffer will also mean that you’re more likely to meet their friends, which is a very important part of staying connected to your teenage children.

A couple of final points:

  • Don’t let the FIFO life be an excuse for not making an effort with your kids. Staying connected takes effort whether or not you work away. As a parent, you need to take control and responsibility for the connection with your child. It’s never too late to try any of the tips above, so get started if you haven’t already. Your kids will thank you for it.
  • The parent who is home has to be willing to play part in this. You’re a team and it’s important that you have each other’s back. Sometimes there is resentment or annoyance about the other person working away and these feelings can leak into parenting. For example, if the parent at home is not happy about their partner working away they can sometimes hold back on information about what’s going on with the kids. This is a form of passive ‘punishment’ of their partner. If you’re the home partner, and you’ve slipped into this sort of thinking and behaviour, please bear in mind that this is punishing your children as well as your partner. Do your partner, your kids and yourself a favour and spend some time thinking (and talking) about why your family has chosen the FIFO lifestyle, and revaluate this decision if necessary.

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.