Staying connected to your children when you work away

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Parents who work away often ask me what they can do to ensure their kids aren’t negatively affected. I sometimes wonder if they’re expecting a “magic tip”, by the way they eagerly await my answer! They’re probably disappointed, then, by how straightforward my response always is: the most important thing parents who work away can do (in fact, the most important thing any parent can do) is stay interested in your children’s lives.

Sure, there are extra little tips and techniques that can help when you’re working in the middle of nowhere for two out of three weeks. But at the end of the day any tips will count for nothing if you’re not really interested in your kids. Real interest breeds real connection which leads to strong relationships, whether you work 10 minutes or 10 hours away.

I’ve heard some parents say that it’s hard to be interested in what’s going on back home when they’re away for days or weeks at a time. Dads often complain that their kids are terrible at talking on the phone or video conferencing, and only give them single word answers. I actually think this has a lot to do with the questions! Here’s an example:

Dad: “Hi, did you have a good day?”
Son: “Yep”
Dad: “What did you get up to?”
Son: “Not much”
Dad: “How was school?”
Son: “Good”
Dad: “What else is new?”
Son: “Nothing”
Dad: “OK, well then is your mum there?”

Sound familiar? This style of conversation is quite typical of a phone conversation between a dad and his child (and not just when dad works away!) It might sound harsh, but I think laziness on the part of the parent is the main factor. It’s “connection” without really being interested, and it’s likely to leave both parties feeling pretty let down. Conversations based on genuine interest are much more satisfying. Just think of the last time you talked to someone who wasn’t really interested in you or what you’ve been up to … and now think of the last time you talked to someone who was. Which would you prefer? Well, your kids feel the same way.

I know it can be hard to stay in the loop when you physically aren’t around. But make a pact with yourself not to use working away as an excuse. Parents who work away just have to make an extra special effort to keep up-to-date about their child’s activities. The best way to do this is to keep a detailed diary, with all sorts of information such as school terms, important tests or exams, weekly spelling tests, appointments and social events. If possible, use an electronic diary and show your partner and kids how to add important events in as well.

Keeping (and using) a detailed diary will help you ask your children relevant and detailed questions while you’re away, so those phone conversations flow more easily. Remember, vague questions like ‘how was your day’ are likely to prompt maddening comebacks like ‘good’ or ‘okay’. By asking specific, relevant questions, you’re likely to get much more information and a much more passionate response. For example: “You had a pretty busy weekend, with your school concert on Friday, then sport and Sam’s party on Saturday. What did you get up to Sunday?” is a much better conversation starter than “Did you have a good weekend?”.

Closed questions require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer and tend to shut the conversation down. Examples are: “Did Tess come over” or “Did you go out for dinner?” Try to keep your questions open ended. Examples are: “What sorts of questions were in your biology test?” or “Where did you end up going on Friday night?” Think ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘what’ for open-ended questions, even something as simple as “What made you laugh at school today?”. These tend of open the conversation out, and encourage the flow of information.

Maintaining interest and a real connection with your kids will also help with discipline (and I know this is another area where some parents struggle). Interest, connection and discipline go hand in hand – you can’t just expect your kids to do as you say if you’re disconnected and uninvolved in their life. They might appear to be under your authority, but your rules will be out the window as soon as you turn your back (which obviously isn’t ideal if you work away!)

Generally speaking, parents who can effectively discipline their kids have good relationships that they’ve fostered over time. If you’ve maintained a connection while away, you will be able to back up any decisions you make with informed reasons.

Also, remember that all ‘working away’ families with children over the age of four should have a visible calendar that shows their parents’ routine. Use drawings or symbols on the calendar so the kids can learn to check in for themselves.

Finally, here are my main pointers at a glance:

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