Helping teenagers to cope when a parent works away

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Unfortunately we don’t know a huge amount about the particular issues that face the teenage kids of FIFO workers, or the sorts of things that help them cope well when a parent works away. Like most areas of the FIFO lifestyle, there’s not really any research yet. We hope to soon know much more, as more research is undertaken in this area (*see below for more information on a current study of teenagers and FIFO).

In the meantime, we have to draw on what we do know about teenagers, resilience and coping to come up with some ‘educated guesses’ about what sorts of things are likely to help teenage kids cope when one parent works away. I personally think the themes are the same no matter what the age: communication and connection are the main factors to keep in mind for helping toddlers, teenagers and adults to cope with FIFO.

Don't take it personally

There is something extra to keep in mind when it comes to teenagers though, and I think it’s relevant when we’re thinking about how they might struggle when one parent works away. One of the psychological tasks of adolescence is to become increasingly independent from our parents. This makes adolescence a confusing time for kids – they’re sort of driven to want to become more independent, yet they often still want (and need) the security that comes from dependence on mum and/or dad. They fluctuate between wanting to be emotionally close to their parents, to wanting to be emotionally distant from them, and this can happen several times a day! It’s like toddlers and physical distance – one minute they’re clinging to your leg and the next they’re sprinting at full speed away from you!

I think that one parent being away for periods of time probably confuses all this a bit more for teenagers, because they can’t choose when to be close and when to be distant. They might miss their dad desperately when he’s away, but then ignore him when he’s next home. The trick here is for the FIFO worker to watch their own thinking about this. Ignoring thoughts like “He doesn’t care anyway” or “She doesn’t even notice if I’m away or home” (which are likely to have you pulling back from your teenager) and inviting other ‘committed’ thoughts like “I am her dad, she loves me and I will continue to be available to her” will help you take things less personally.

Be clear about expectations

On this note, teenagers can seem pretty selfish. As a rule, if they want to hang out with you, they expect you to be available. If the shoe is on the other foot, and you want to spend some time with them because it’s your week home, they might be unavailable. It’s pretty normal (particularly in our culture) for teenagers to be quite narcissistic. This means everything is about them. To an extent they can’t help it, and their brain development at this age means they are not really that inclined to bother about other’s feelings. This is why it’s important to be clear about family expectations and rules and to not be too bothered if your teenager doesn’t seem keen on participating. In my view, you can expect your teenager to participate in family events even if they don’t really want to (and pretend that you hadn’t noticed they weren’t keen!).

Some examples of what this might mean for families where one person does FIFO are, for example, an expectation that the teenager will join the family at the table for dinner on a certain number of nights a week; will watch a movie with the family; will help out with some jobs that need doing when dad is away and will cook breakfast for the family on the weekend. I wonder if some families feel a little guilty or sorry for their kids because they do FIFO, and so expect less of them. Strangely enough, expecting little to nothing of kids in the area of family participation (chores as well as connection) is bad for a child’s self esteem. Although they certainly won’t thank you for it now, encouraging and even expecting your teenager to take part in family activities is not only good for their self esteem, it’s great for setting up opportunities for communication.

Persist with communication

Communication with teenagers can seem hard at the best of times and doubly hard when you are away for days to weeks at a time. If you work away it is likely that you will have to be persistent and foster some thick skin if you want a good relationship with your teenage child. Contrary to popular belief, most teenagers do want good relationships with their family members but they often don’t have great relationship skills. I think we expect too much of them sometimes. It’s my view that the parents still hold the lion’s share of responsibility for the tone of the relationship in the teenage years and perhaps this is especially true where the decision has been made that one parent will work away.
  • Create multiple opportunities for conversations with your child. Thinking that they will talk to you 'on demand' or if something is bothering them is a mistake. Just be available as much as possible. When you're home, make sure you're the one who drives them around, goes to their sports, helps out with their homework etc. Don't fall into the trap of being lazy and "not knowing" what is going on just because you work away.
  • Be interested. Interest breeds interest. Make a point of knowing what's going on in their lives and ask about it. Practice active listening (lots of eye contact, smiling and encouraging noises like 'aha's). Active listening is a skill. If you're unsure if you're any good at it, find out more and practice it. Googling 'active listening skills' is a good place to start.
  • Be as available as possible even while you are away. Use technology like text messaging and Skype to do this. If you don't know how to use this technology, then learn. Leave thoughtful messages in their bedroom for them that let them know you are thinking of them, especially if you will be away for an event that is important to them.
  • Expect good behaviour from your teenager. Even if they miss you when you're away, this is not an excuse for poor decisions, disrespectful behaviours or not doing their jobs. All feelings are OK, but certain behaviours are not. You can be angry and not punch someone; you can be sad and still go to school; you can be grumpy and still speak nicely to your sister.
  • Encourage positive relationships outside of your immediate household, for example with grandparents, aunts and uncles and even friends' parents who can also provide love and support for your teenager.
  • Model positive thinking and problem solving skills. If there is a problem, let your teenager see you work through it in a positive way. If you're no good at this, learn it!
  • Inform your teenager about where he/she can get some support from if they feel they need it. See below for websites and telephone services for kids. (Sit down and google the sites with them so you can both see what's available).
  • Very importantly (as hard as it might be) try not to immediately judge what your teenager is telling you. A 16-year-old client comes to mind - she told me that her mum "sometimes pretends to be interested, but she just can't help having a go about every little thing she disagrees with". Here is a typical example:

Mum: “Did you have fun staying over at Milla’s? What did you two get up to?”

Kid:“Oh my god it was soooo funny, Milla and I got up in the middle of the night and went and jumped into her pool in our pyjamas. It was hilarious.” (followed by teenage laughter)

Mum (with unimpressed look on her face): “What on earth did you do that for? What a stupid idea. I hope you didn’t wake Milla’s mum up or go into their house all dripping wet. I suppose your wet pyjamas are all screwed up in your bag … you can wash them when you get home.”

It’s pretty clear that this sort of response is not likely to invite more sharing, and yet it’s so easy to understand as well! I’m not saying that you always have to agree or that you can’t comment on really silly things, just choose your battles and aim to keep your teenager talking rather than shutting them down.

Develop a thick skin

On a final note, It’s quite normal for teenagers to become critical of the choices their parents make and they way they live their lives. For some kids, being critical of their parents is part of creating their own identity. This criticism might extend to your choice of work. Kids have not yet had to face up to the realities of life and it’s easy for them to be scornful about the decisions you have made, such as to work away. Beyond understanding that the criticism might be because they’d prefer you to be home more, try not to take it too personally. If your teenager is open to talking about it all, you could raise the topic for discussion by chatting about how you’ve come to be doing what you are now. If they’re not interested, just drop it and leave the conversation for a year (or five!) down the track.

Websites for teenagers:

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