How to survive with young kids and a FIFO husband

By Angie Willcocks

Q: 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?

A: 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:​

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.

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