• Shiftworking Parents: How to Stay Connected to Your Kids

    IMAGE It is hard enough for parents who work 9 to 5 to stay connected with their kids. Imagine working the 3 pm to 11 pm or 7 pm to 7 am shift. For many parents, it means missing sporting events, parent-teacher conferences, and family activities, not to mention dinnertime and bedtime.
    The good news is that many families make it work. It is all a matter of maintaining a positive outlook, says Janie O'Connor, a specialist in shiftwork education.

    Accepting Your Situation

    Making it work involves three things:
    • Accepting that you and/or your spouse work a nontraditional schedule
    • Communicating that to your children
    • Working within that framework to recognize and take advantage of the opportunities that nontraditional schedules offer
    That may mean eating birthday cake for breakfast or celebrating Thanksgiving on a Tuesday, but valuing family time, whenever it happens, will relieve a lot of shiftwork-related stress.

    Using Good Communication and Organization

    Shiftworking parents who make it work, says O'Connor, invariably credit their success to two things:
    • Making a concerted effort to stay in touch with their kids while they are growing up
    • Being organized and detail-oriented, arranging their schedules each week to make sure that all the bases are covered

    Reducing Guilt and Stress

    Many shiftworking parents assume a lot of guilt, O'Connor says. The guiltier you feel about your work schedule, the more stress both you and your kids will feel. Whining about your awful hours, even if your goal is to let your children know that you are just as unhappy with the situation as they are, is an invitation to them to join in the whining, thus increasing your feelings of guilt.
    It is helpful to remember that there are a lot of options available to shiftworking parents and their kids that are not available to nine-to-fivers. Parents who work evening shifts are often able to help with classroom activities or serve as lunchroom monitors at their kids' schools. Parents who work overnight shifts arrive home as their kids are getting up in the morning and can better enjoy breakfast time because they are not rushing to get off to work themselves.

    Negotiating a Contract With Your Teen

    "I know a nurse, a single-parent shiftworker, who wanted to be in touch with her teenage daughter," O'Connor says. "The two of them sat down and discussed curfews, rules for daily contact, responsibilities, etc. They hammered out differences, and agreed that they would meet together as often as necessary to alter or refine the agreement. They put it in writing, and each signed it. This is a very healthy idea for any family with a shiftworking parent."
    If you have more than one child, work out individual, age-appropriate contracts with each.

    Being a Noncustodial Shiftworking Parent

    Visits between a child and a noncustodial shiftworking parent can be great, O'Connor says, but will require "coloring outside the lines." Perhaps you can meet for breakfasts rather than spending entire weekends together, she suggests. Above all, show up, be present, and be committed. Stay in touch with telephone calls, letters, email, and visits whenever possible.

    Weighing the Pros and Cons

    Teens whose parents work nontraditional hours attain greater maturity and develop home management skills at a younger age than their peers do, O'Connor says. On the other hand, when shiftworking parents do not pay enough attention to detail and are not committed to being present in their children's lives, the resulting overabundance of independence combined with a lack of direction and boundaries can lead to behavior problems and difficulties in school.
    "It can go either way. Which way it will go depends on the kind of attention that is paid to the child," O'Connor says. "When there are expectations, boundaries and, most importantly, responsibilities, it will work. Without these, it's a struggle."

    Making It Work

    Schedule time together.
    The experts offer the following tips for making the most of your situation:
    The lack of contact that can result from shiftwork can make meaningful interaction difficult, so it is especially important to schedule time together.
    Put everything, especially family time, (and sleep time!) on a calendar. Routine is very important, says Barry G. Ginsberg, PhD, director of the Center of Relationship Enhancement and a child and family psychologist in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
    If you cannot make it to the soccer match or band concert, have a family member videotape such events and schedule a time when you and your child can watch the video together while he or she recounts the high points. Want to attend a family party but have to leave early to go to work? Take two cars so you can get some enjoyment from the event without making everyone leave early because of your schedule.
    Don't forget to set rules pertaining to acceptable reasons for waking a sleeping shiftworker.
    Keep a positive attitude about your schedule and look for the opportunities it offers. Always find a way to be grateful for what you have. Share your positive attitude with your kids by letting them know that this is how your family works and you're doing fine—you just march to the beat of a different drummer.

    RESOURCES

    American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry http://www.aacap.org/

    American Academy of Family Physicians http://www.aafp.org/

    CANADIAN RESOURCES

    Canadian Mental Health Association http://www.ontario.cmha.ca/index.asp

    Canadian Psychological Association http://www.cpa.ca/

    References

    The risks of shift work. American Academy of Pediatrics. Health Children website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/work-play/pages/The-Risks-of-Shift-Work.aspx. Updated May 19, 2011. Accessed December 6, 2011.

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