Tackling mood swings in FIFO households

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

I’ve been told by quite a few of you that mood swings are common in FIFO households – particularly towards the end of the rostered time off.

Sometimes the FIFO worker is moody, other times it’s the person left at home. Either way, the excitement and closeness of reunion gives way to grumpiness, short fuses and arguments. At times like these, it’s not hard to imagine couples questioning their decision to do FIFO (if not out loud, then at least in your head.) Is it worth it?

Sometimes, the difficulty of those few days is an indication of broader relationship problems or other issues that might mean FIFO is not a good fit for your family. More often than not though, I’d say the difficulties of those days can be overcome and managed, ensuring that FIFO continues to bring the benefits without such a cost.

The first step is to get a clear picture of what is going on. Not in an emotional or judgemental way – just in a ‘fly on the wall’ way. I sometimes ask clients to imagine they’re me, observing events and moods in the house as an outsider. You and your partner could work together on this. (As always, working together on a problem associated with FIFO helps to keep the problem about the lifestyle, not about either one of you or your relationship.)

Keep track of events and moods in a diary over the few times of your partner being home. I know this sounds full on, but it’s very important to get a true picture of what’s happening. Our minds have a way of playing tricks on us – making us think that something “always” happens when it actually happens only one in every three times (but it’s so distressing and seems so meaningful that it really seems like every time). An accurate picture of the situations that lead to mood swings will help you get some perspective, and perhaps give you some ideas on how to avoid or adapt trigger situations.

Here’s an example of a diary I’d give to clients to fill in (obviously I’ve made up the detail in this one to give you some idea of the sort of things to include. What you write about can be as detailed as you like – it’s for you after all!

Day What we didMoodHow we got along
WednesdayBill came home early afternoon. I picked him up, he had time for shower and change and we got the kids from school. Dinner out at mum's.Mine: good Bill's: good All good! Happy to see each other of course
ThursdayKids at school. Bill doing some jobs around garden. Dr appt. for me. Dinner at home.Mine: OK Bill: goodOK - some disagreement about plants in the garden. We got over it pretty quickly.
FridayI worked in the morning, Bill took kids to school and did reading with Gemma. Take away for dinner. Bill out at night with some mates. I had an early night.Mine: good. Rushed but pretty happy Bill: good. Happy to have some time at home relaxing and seeing his matesDidn't see that much of each other. Slightly tense between us but not sure why.
SaturdayKids sport. I played netball. Dinner at friends.Mine: good Bill: a bit grumpy (big night last night perhaps?)OK
SundayWe wanted to have a quiet day but friends called in and stayed for ages. It was nice to see them but I didn't get things done. kids were pretty naughty.Mine: stressed Bill: goodWe argued about Dylan's behaviour. I thought Bill was too soft on him.
MondayTaxi came to get Bill very early. Kids to school. House is a mess.Mine: grumpy Bill: OKOK. I hate the sleepy goodbye in the morning

Keeping a diary like this for at least three or four breaks (or any time in the FIFO schedule that your family finds difficult) should give you a clearer picture of common triggers for low moods or arguments.

As mentioned above, I think it’s best if you work together on this diary by both filling it in. If you don’t think your partner will be up for it, you could keep the diary yourself. One potential problem to be aware of in keeping the diary by yourself is misreading the reason for your partner’s mood. For example, you might notice that your partner is grumpy and irritable one day and assume that this is because you asked him to take the kids to school, but in fact it was because he had a poor sleep because his back hurt. If he’s not one to share information about sore backs and poor sleep then you will get the wrong idea and might go off on the wrong track to try to improve things. At the very least you could let your partner know what you’re doing and ask them to look over it when it’s done to correct anything you’ve missed or misinterpreted.

Some of you reading this column might be thinking “I’ve already tried to figure out what sort of situations lead to mood swings and there really is no obvious cause… one minute I’m ok and the next I’m grumpy”. If that’s the case, it is very likely that the cause of the low mood, grumpiness, moodiness or mood swings will be found somewhere in your thoughts. The starting point for dealing with this is the same – a diary. Of course, you can only ever do a thought diary for yourself. If your partner has the mood swings, you could encourage them to have a look at their own thinking around the FIFO roster.

Here is an example of a simple thought diary I would give to clients trying to get to the bottom of their mood swings:

SituationThoughtsFeelingsAction/Behaviour (what you did)
At work. Someone commented on all the work piled up on my desk.Are they joking? Am I getting behind with my work? Don't others have work piled up like this? I guess I should stay late today to get through this. I've got so much to do at home as well. I'm not coping with all this. I've got too much on my plate.Stressed and worried.Went home from work early.
Ben wouldn't get ready for school, I had to ask him five times to put his shoes on.Why can't my kids do as they're told? I'll be late now. I won't get time to read with him. His reading needs more help. I don't spend enough time with him reading at night. If his dad was here more often it wouldn't fall on my shoulders all the time. He's going again in the morning so he won't have time to listen to Ben tonight either. He needs to make more time. I can't do it all.Very annoyed. Upset and worried.Shouted at Ben and also at Lily.

This task is easier said than done for most of us. It takes a lot of practice to be able to notice what our thoughts are. Sometimes people find it easier to start by noticing the feeling and work backwards to the thoughts. For example, “I am feeling down, what was it I was just thinking about…?” Noticing our thoughts is not easy to start with, but it is a skill worth learning. Once you have identified the thought or thoughts that trigger your low mood, you can decide what to do about the thought depending on what it is. Some options are:

Another benefit in keeping a diary like this is to become more aware of your actions after an event. Remember that others can only see the situation and then your reaction (they can’t see all the thinking that goes on in between!) As well as changing our thoughts, we can also change our behaviour.

Of course, it is really important that moodiness is not actually something more serious, like depression, anxiety or unmanaged stress. See this column for more information on identifying those issues in yourself or your partner.

A CD called Mindfulness Skills Volume 1, by Russ Harris, might also be helpful in learning more about noticing your thoughts and feelings.

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