Coping with the kids when your partner is away
As the high-pitched wail went up yet again from her toddler son Leon’s room, Sandy turned over wearily in bed. The other side was empty. Her husband Tim had gone on a three-week stint away from home to work at the mine. As usual, Leon was making his displeasure with the upheaval clear.
What Sandy and Tim hadn’t anticipated when Tim accepted the job on the mines was the adverse effect on their youngest son’s behaviour. Almost overnight he descended into an irritable toddler by day and a tyrant at night. His sleeping patterns, previously excellent, became disrupted. Sandy, who was struggling to cope with her husband’s absence herself, became frustrated and resentful about the strain her husband’s lengthy absences were placing on their family. In addition, their two school age children also became stressed and anxious about the dramatic change in domestic arrangements.
Sandy isn’t the only mom dealing with difficulties such as these. As areas boom, there are increasing numbers of families affected by fly in / fly out (FIFO) arrangements. Similarly, families where either one or both parents are employed by the defence forces, are faced with similar issues.
For Sandy and Tim, the financial benefits of the FIFO job needed to be carefully balanced against their needs as a family. They were forced to take a close look at their family dynamics and work together to minimise the disruption to their children’s lives while ensuring they both felt supported to continue the FIFO arrangement. Putting in place a defined range of coping strategies has helped the whole family adjust to Tim’s working arrangements.
Strategies for coping:
- It’s vital to ensure that a routine is put in place for the children and that this remains stable during the absence and return of the parent. Bedtimes should remain consistent, as should meal times.
- Parents need to mutually agree on discipline strategies and keep these consistent when the partner is absent and present. Children are very quick to pick up on differing cues about what is “acceptable behaviour”, and will take advantage if they are given the chance. Avoid making this a source of conflict in the relationship.
- It’s important to keep anxiety levels for all family members to a minimum. A simple and practical example of this is to make sure school uniforms and lunches are organised the night before school. Toddlers and younger children cannot articulate their worries about the absent parent, so make bath time and bed time as calm as possible. Try to read them a bedtime story and sing songs with them in order to soothe and calm them. A night-light is often a useful addition to their bedroom if their sleep patterns become disruptive. Its presence often reassures them and they will self-settle.
- Ensure that the absent parent has regular contact with the children; Skype, emails and even text messaging are a great way to keep in contact. They can be involved in homework time through emails being sent with relevant questions for them to answer. For toddlers, a photo book with pictures of them doing various activities with that parent is a wonderful way to remind them of positive times. It also helps maintain an important bond between adult and child in a simple, visual way.
- For the partner of the absent parent, a support network is vital. This is often easier said than done. While well-meaning people will say, “Take some time out for yourself” this can be hard to achieve. Useful ways to look for support can be through placing adverts at your local shops or at a nearby university campus for a babysitter. Having someone else play with or entertain your children can give parents much needed extra time. It will also provide you with some valuable and much needed respite.
- It’s important to remember the absent partner isn’t necessarily having much fun either. They work long hours and usually endure loneliness, isolation and the tedium of living away from their family.
- It’s vital that both partners have some space and “landing” time when the absent parent returns. Make sure you both enjoy your time together and make space for the other person to have some alone time as well. Often there will be resentment felt on both sides. It’s important to acknowledge it and move past it.
- It is good to plan some time where the whole family shares an activity together. It may be as simple as a picnic or a movie night in the lounge. This gives everyone a uniting point that they can talk about when someone is away. The absent parent can be remembered as sharing a positive experience with the family, which helps maintain a good bond for everyone.
For Sandy and Tim, working together ensured that each felt supported by their partner. It also helped their children. The new routines meant their school-aged children felt calmer and better able to face the school day. Leon developed a bedtime routine of kissing daddy’s photo book each night and his sleeping patterns improved considerably.
Sandy made sure she took some much needed time out and vented her frustrations at kickboxing lessons at her local gym. For Tim, the all too brief trips home became something he could look forward to and enjoy with his family. Whilst the fly in fly out arrangement wasn’t ideal, the whole family adjusted relatively well by making small, yet manageable changes.
Here are some tips to help children cope with a frequently travelling parent:
- Schedule a regular phone call - either once a day or once a week. During this call the parent can share something of their day / week and ask their child to do the same. If they are still too young – just hearing your voice will be enough.
- Use Skype - a face-to-face conversation includes all the smiles and expressions a phone call doesn’t. Treat the video call less like a phone call and more like spending time together: read a book, play show and tell, or play a game.
- Put together a photo album - Include photos of the whole family doing the things you love, e.g. biking, playing, gardening or reading. Flip through the book and play “Remember this? Tell me what happened.”
- For older kids, have the child keep a journal of stories to share when the parent comes home, so he or she doesn’t miss anything good.
- Use a map or globe to show where in the world you are and where the travelling parent is now. You could even use Google Maps and look at the terrain or neighbourhood.
- Family and Marriage Association of South Africa (FAMSA)
- Family Life Centre
- Moms Matter Support Groups
- Circle of Moms Groups
See our parenting article for single parents for more advice.