Air Traffic Controllers fall asleep on the job? It’s a story of self-sabotage and putting others at risk. The Outer Child framework makes it easy to understand what goes wrong in the control towers and how to rectify it – and it’s not about blaming the victim.

It’s a no brainer that the graveyard shift would tend to fatigue more easily then the dayshift, right? Controllers who work in the middle of the night are left to get their sleep during the day. And supposedly, like everybody else, they need a straight run of eight hours or more. But we all know the distractions and exigencies produced during the day that could compromise their sleep span. It’s no small wonder that air traffic controllers can get tired.

But does this excuse the fact that… Okay, back up.

Take me for instance. My Outer Child minds me during the day, but at night, when fatigue sets in, my Adult Self is too tired to keep my hand out of the cookie jar.

Now, nighttime is okay if I’m not inundated with temptations; then, I can usually stick to my diet and take care of the day’s loose ends like a self-responsible person. But, if I’m surrounded with food, wine, and fun-loving friends, my Outer Child is able to convince me to go ahead and have the bread (no matter how full I am, I seem to have what my friend Peter calls, an extra bread stomach). It also convinces me, “Go ahead and have the dessert.” It rationalizes this (Outer Child is a master rationalizer) by saying, “You only live once” or “You’ll make up for it by starving yourself tomorrow (“tomorrow” is Outer favorite word)” or “Everyone else is doing it” (Outer is an infamous conformist) or “Eat all the bread and cake you want to get it out of your system for once and for all” (Outer, the con artist).

What about air traffic controllers? Might their Outer Children act up when their Adult Selves get tired, like at night, on the job?

The framework works like this: You have an Outer Child, an Inner Child and an Adult Self. The Inner child is all about your basic human needs and feelings. Your Outer Child is all about behavior – acting out behavior. And your Adult self is always in a power struggle with your Outer Child to get your goals accomplished on behalf of your Inner Child’s truest needs and desires. Your goal is to get to the gym; your Outer Child wants to lounge in front of the TV eating potato chips. This makes your Inner Child feel frustrated and bad.

It all has to do with self-abandonment. When Inner Child’s needs are forsaken, Outer Child comes to the rescue with a quick fix – an immediate gratification – a second piece of cake, a third glass of wine, a shopping spree, a trip to Vegas, a stolen nap – things that feel good in the short run but aren’t necessarily good FOR you. This creates a vicious cycle, leaving your Inner Child feeling more frustrated than ever.

Among Inner Child’s basic human needs, sleep would be an important one– particularly circadian rhythm sleep which is set for the hours of darkness. The graveyard shift causes controllers to have to override their circadian rhythms in the line of duty. This means they are not able to give their Inner Children the sleep they’re craving. And this self-abandonment creates a prescription for Outer Children to swoop in with its tempting quick fixes.

When controllers face fatigue and boredom, their Outer Children might suggest, “Let’s watch really exciting movies to stay up.” Or they might succumb to taking uppers to keep awake and downers when they get home and are too “wired” to sleep. As for the napping on the job, Outer can easily rationalize this with, “A power nap will make me refreshed, more alert, allow me to do a better job.” Or Outer might use denial (a favorite ploy): “I’m not tired. I’m not dozing off. I’ll be able to hear the pilots radio-in even if I just rest my eyes for a minute…” Or Outer becomes grandiose: “I can miss a day’s sleep and still do a good job.”

But hey, not all of this is on the air traffic controllers! Let’s look at the administrators who see fit to send people out on a life-and-death mission, sometimes alone, in the middle of the night! Without backups! Without special mechanisms that monitor fatigue! Without sufficient checks and balances in place!

The administrators seem to be discounting (abandoning) the depth of the controllers’ basic human need for sleep, imposing stringent requirements on them, and then pointing figures when they become overpowered by the pull of sleep. This tells you something about the Outer Children of the administrators – their unrealistic expectations, blame, passing the buck, though now that catnapping has come to public attention, they are scrambling to put a more tenable safety system in place (we hope).

When my Outer Child comes alive at night and decides to break my diet (etc.), what happens to my Inner Child? Well, she is dependent on my Adult Self to take care of her needs. And these needs simply get abandoned. My inner child wants desperately to fit into the beautiful clothes hanging in my closet that are now a whole size too small. And every time I gorge on bread and dessert, she has to wait longer. While she waits, she feels anxious, disappointed, bad about herself, and abandoned – abandoned by me for not taking care of her desire to look her best. She’s mad at me for letting Outer Child act so self-indulgently and ruin everything (again)! When do HER needs come first? Well, I do take care of them all day long when my Adult Self is alert, well rested, and running the show. But at night when tired, Outer sometimes swoops in and says, “Pass the bread.”

Using the Outer Child framework, it seems all too obvious what’s needed to fix the Control Tower problem: Inner Child’s need for sleep has to come first and foremost. And since sufficient sleep cycles can be neither mandated nor guaranteed, fatigue factors much be safeguarded with ample supports. Air traffic controllers deserve it and so do we.

Categories: abandonment, Outer Child
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