Q&A: how to help your child cope with FIFO when he's not a great communicator

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By psychologist Jane Dodding

Q: Hi. Hubby works FIFO, we have young children and I'm pregnant. Our eldest isn't very good at communicating verbally. He has come a long way, but he still isn't at a stage where he can tell me what the matter is, if something is wrong emotionally. In the last month he's started really going off Dad. Doesn't want hugs, doesn't want Dad to tuck him in. Last swing, he pooped on his bedroom floor (not the first time, other times are always when his Dad is away) and smeared all through the carpet. We only started taking hubby to the airport and picking him up around a month ago (he usually carpools). Not sure if that has something to do with it, since we live quite close to the airport? He had a hard time adjusting when his sibling came along, so I wondered if he could subconsciously be remembering what a new baby in the house means. I'm really at breaking point. It's so hard not having hubby here to help with these things. Definitely starting to resent him being FIFO.

A: Thank you for getting in touch and it certainly sounds like you have your hands full right now. It might be worth reminding yourself that everything changes and especially the phases children go through.

There is some fantastic information about children and FIFO on our website, and here are a few which might be helpful to read:

As you are unsure what the problem is related to, I wonder if a good place to start is to try and help him to express himself and his emotions. You might want to try the following:

  • Help him identify and be aware of feelings. Talk about emotions (e.g. “I’m excited we are going to the pool today”) and what it feels like for you (e.g. “it makes me smile and want to run, skip and hop!”). This will help him to identify, name, be aware of emotions and associated behaviours. You can also share what you do to manage your emotions. For example, “When I’m sad I watch a funny movie, read, listen to music” etc. You can also talk about and model this behaviour at the time you are experiencing the emotion. This way you normalise emotions, we all have them and they are okay, and that there are things we can do to help ourselves feel better when we need to.
  • Ask him directly to help you understand what is wrong and help him to identify and express his feelings. You may want to try other means of communication to allow him to express his feelings such as drawing, play dough or puppets. For play ideas, check out the Raising Children website. Visual feeling/emotion aids or charts might also be worth exploring so he can use them to show you what emotion he is experiencing. Regularly help him to identify how he is feeling to increase his level of awareness.
  • Validate his emotions but not the unacceptable behaviour. “It is okay to feel angry and frustrated, but it is never okay to poop on the floor.”
  • What else he can do? Try asking “What can you do right now that might help you feel a bit better?” Help him to explore alternative behaviours (e.g. throw a ball against the wall, ride his bike, pat and talk to the dog, come to you for help). Think about what he does that makes him happy and calms him down and encourage him to try it when you notice he is experiencing strong emotions. You want to help him shift his thinking.
  • Praise him when he expresses his emotions and handles his feelings constructively. “I was proud when you told me you were feeling sad and then watched your favourite funny TV show”. You'll find other helpful information regarding emotions on the Kids Matter website.

Other practical suggestions include:

  • Maintain a consistent routine, whether your husband is at home or not. This might help to provide a sense of predictability and security.
  • Maintain connection with his Dad while he is away. You might want to think about a routine Dad does regularly at home (or can start) and see if you can maintain that while he is away (e.g. saying “good night, love you” or reading him a story via Skype).

If you continue to be concerned about his behaviour and wellbeing, please seek assistance from a psychologist specialising in children.

I hope that helps. All the best.

Jane


To read other columns written by our psychologists, 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.


Jane Dodding is a psychologist and director with MindsPlus, a group of psychologists and other mental health workers who came together in 2007 to provide support to people living and working in rural and remote regions of Australia. For further information about MindsPlus, contact 1300 312 202 or visit www.mindsplus.com.au