In March 2020 Western Australia shut its borders. While there may be well-meaning policies behind the border closures, there’s no escaping the fact that this decision has irrevocably changed people’s lives – especially for fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) families. FIFO families are finding themselves forcibly separated with workers stuck in rural WA, while their partners and children remain behind in other states. Parents have been forced to choose between keeping food on the table and being with their children.
And the other solutions aren’t great. While the government has released incentives to encourage FIFO families to relocate to WA this doesn’t take into account the other parent’s work situation, the kids’ schooling or friend and family support, for example. Sometimes it just won’t work.
So, what does this mean for the mental health of FIFO children?
Measurable and Significant Impact on Mental Health
Regardless of motives, hard border closures are bound to have a significant mental health impact on the affected families. It’s true that FIFO families have long faced the challenge of distance and time apart. They sign up for two, three or even four week stints on the job site, and then a period of time at home with the family.
The difference here is autonomy. Yes FIFO families, have chosen some time apart. They’ve factored that set amount into their family dynamic and made changes to continue to build their connection and wellbeing individually and within their families. But under the hard border closures, that autonomy – that choice – is gone.
New research shows that our mental health has a strong correlation to the amount of autonomy we have at our job. It also affects our ability to manage and even understand the demands of our job. In other words, when we don’t have a choice our mental health suffers, our work suffers and even our ability to think suffers.
For our kids, the impact can be just as devastating. Though studies on this particular situation are still ongoing, we can correlate the effects on children who are separated from a parent due to war time military deployment. In those situations the deployed parent is also at the mercy of the government’s decisions, and though has chosen to be in the military, lacks autonomy in when and how they are deployed.
Studies show that children in those circumstances have increased mental health challenges (up 11%), behavioural disorders (up 19%) and stress disorders (up 18%). Another study reports that deployment has a negative effect on the psychosocial outcomes in children. This means feelings, behaviour, self-esteem, body image, social interactions, sexual activities and relationships are all negatively impacted when parents are separated from their children through no choice of their own.
The Way Forward
It seems clear that the best way forward for the mental health of Australian families is to simply remove hard border closures, or provide exemptions for FIFO workers. Unfortunately, unless the government changes its policies, that’s simply not going to happen. So, what else can we do to help?
First, acknowledge this is a hard situation.
This is a genuinely hard situation. There’s no easy answer. FIFO workers have to work. And moving the entire family to WA isn’t usually an option either. Sometimes families have health needs that keep them in cities, sometimes they aren’t able to leave family support and sometimes the further disruption to their children’s lives would simply do more harm than good. Acknowledge that to your kids. Let them know you get it.
Second, talk about it.
Be honest about what’s happening and give your child as much information as they are developmentally ready for. Talk about where mum or dad is, what they’re doing every day and why it’s important that they’re there. Let your children develop a vision of their parent in the other environment. Video chats are excellent for this. The more your child can imagine where their mum or dad is, the less foreign and ‘distant’ it feels.
Third, help them feel a sense of stability.
As much as possible maintain routines, activities and even family traditions. If dad usually makes pancakes Sunday morning, maybe dad and the children can have an online pancake cooking session. It won’t be perfect, but it will give your kids the feeling that their parent is still involved in their lives. Also, as much as you can, be consistent with discipline. Children thrive when they know boundaries.
Being away from loved ones for a long period of time is not good for anyone. It’s just really hard, and unfortunately there’s no easy answer. All we can do in this difficult time is keep working on building that connection within your family. And know that we’re all behind you.