Children's emotional, physical and cognitive responses to parents' shift work and on-call duties

Support workers can familiarise themselves with some of the responses children can have to shift work and on-call duties that their parents may experience to better understand and support families. Support workers might become even more critical during these times because they are a consistent presence and caregiver when so many changes.


Children can respond to their parent's shift work, including unexpected overtime and unpredictable work patterns, in various ways, including physically, emotionally and cognitively.

  • Physical responses - Children might struggle with sleep issues because they are mirroring the parent, or their sleep is disturbed by the new routines in the household. They might also find it harder to settle to sleep, especially if they are worried about their parent's safety or their own safety without the parent.
  • Emotional responses - Children might withdraw from the parent experiencing shift work or the family. This might be due to an unconscious protection method to avoid feeling hurt when the parent leaves the household. Additionally, children might become emotionally dysregulated if they experience intense and ongoing fear for their parent's safety. These fears can be fuelled by:
  1. media and social media,
  2. overhearing parents and other adult conversations, and
  3. peer and community discussions.

Parents could be encouraged to see the family doctor if the emotional dysregulation is long-lasting or extreme. There is more information about dysregulation and the transfer of trauma in our Child and Family Trauma module.

  • Cognitive responses - trouble concentrating due to anxiety and changes at home.

First Responder family scenario

A First Responder parent is at home or in the community on-call. 
They are part-way through an activity with their child (for example, cooking, eating a meal, putting their child to sleep,
watching their child receive an award at school, or playing a
game of sport) when they are contacted to attend an emergency.
The First Responder must leave the child in the care of another
adult immediately. Therefore, the child can become distressed
due to the suddenness of the transition as well as potentially
being affected by the parent’s stress response to the call-out.

Older children

Some older children can feel they need to take on more responsibility and become more independent during these times. They often withdraw and don't feel they can communicate their needs when the household's or the parent's needs are perceived to be more important.


Children can feel a sense of pride when they admire the work their parent does in their community. They can feel empowered when they take on extra household responsibilities, often learning new skills. Some families organise special jobs or rosters to cover chores when the parent is unavailable.

Children can build resilience and adaptability when they have to take on new household responsibilities and learn to rely on more than one source of support.

Activities to assist children during these periods

Depending on their age, assist the child in exploring different occupations involving shift and on-call work. This might include activities such as:

1. internet searches,

2. finding pictures and making a collage showing these workers and the types of work they do,

3. create a social story with the child (a printed copy could include photos of the family and parents in uniform)

4. encourage the parent(s) and educators to facilitate role-play to explore various occupations involving puppets, dress-ups and other props,

5. explore children's books that feature these families,

6. drawing or painting of some of these families and their own family.

Last modified: Friday, 6 October 2023, 3:35 PM