Easing a difficult childcare transition: help!
January 16, 2017 2:17 PM   Subscribe

My family has been using the au pair program with great success for three years, since a little after my son Adam was born. We are currently in the midst of the transition to our third au pair, and Adam is not having it. Do you have any strategies to help with this?

It was fine during the few days of overlap before our former au pair Jasmine left and after our current au pair Maddy arrived. Since Jasmine left, Adam is refusing to play or accept any help from Maddy, and won't say much to her--mostly "you're bad" or "you're stinky".

I am doing my best to validate his feelings and frame this in my head as him "struggling with big emotions and the transition" vs. "choosing to behave poorly". It came out today that he thinks maybe I will leave like Jasmine did, so I'm going to say a lot that I will always be here, I will always come back, etc. Generally speaking Adam is a cheerful and agreeable boy, so this out-of-character has been pretty rough on all of us. I do realize this is a difficult transition and a pretty typical reaction, so I'm not hoping for magic that makes everybody happy tomorrow.

Things we have tried:
-doing activities all together as a family
-talking about the situation, such as "I miss Jasmine too" and "You must feel sad and angry that she had to go back home", etc.
-lots of "i love yous"
-lots of physical affection (maybe not any more than normal, we're just pretty physically affectionate)
-special/new toys for Adam and Maddy to play with together; Adam is super into Lego right now so I thought "receiving" a Lego present from Maddy would help. This worked until about halfway through assembling them, when Adam started saying Maddy couldn't help.
-Leaving them together -- this works for a while when they have the focal point of an activity. Other times, Adam is screaming/sobbing for me and there's only so long I can take that, for all our sakes'.
-Consequences for bad behavior - no tv if Adam is rude, for example
-talking about the childcare situation and why we need an au pair
-extra careful eyes on Adam being hungry, tired, thirsty

Other ideas:
-Maddy suggested a behavior chart where he gets stickers for "good" days (i.e. not being rude, cooperating) and a certain number of stickers in a week gets some sort of treat. This makes some sense to me but I'm worried that's too abstract for his age. Also it doesn't feel wholly honoring of the difficult feelings he's working through. At the same time, difficult feelings are not an acceptable reason to treat others poorly.
-More facetime with Jasmine and other family members that aren't nearby (grandparents, uncle)
-More playdates with his best friend Olive who also has an au pair

I appreciate any ideas. Thank you!
posted by emkelley to Human Relations (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Adam is refusing to play or accept any help from Maddy, and won't say much to her--mostly "you're bad" or "you're stinky".
I am doing my best to validate his feelings.

*Raising eyebrow*

From your description of all the great things he has gotten since starting this behavior, are you sure you are not rewarding this negative behavior? It's ok to say, "We don't talk to people like that in our house." Even to a 3 year old.
posted by Toddles at 2:43 PM on January 16, 2017 [42 favorites]

I'm not sure what your reasons are for having an au pair, but if part of it is for both parents to be able to physically leave the house without kid in tow (for work or whatever other reason), then I think you just need to be willing to go even if it makes Adam sad. Presumably Maddy has childcare experience to deal with a kid having a temper tantrum, and in my experience, it is actually a lot EASIER to deal with when the parents don't keep swooping in and rewarding the tantrum. Although I haven't been an au pair specifically, I have done long-term child care gigs with families, and often kids that will throw all sorts of fits when they know their parents can hear will do just fine when it's not an option for mom to come "fix" the situation. Or, you know, the child will cry for a while, and that's okay because little kids cry sometimes, but as someone with experience with kids I have strategies to deal with that. It's not as if having a rough afternoon with some tears is going to kill anyone! Now, obviously if this were to progress to the point of your child literally screaming for hours without cease or some other sort of severe behavioral issue, it might be time to get checked out by a child psychologist -- but so far, it just sounds like throwing a fit = extra attention from mom which is driving a feedback loop.

(FWIW, I think some types of behavioral charts can work with 3-year-olds, but "be good all day" is probably too broad/abstract. But if you could come up with somethign smaller/more concrete to reward, this might be somethign to try.)
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:55 PM on January 16, 2017 [8 favorites]

"You're stinky?" Why is Adam allowed to insult another person, especially a friendly one who's trying to help him?
That is unacceptable behavior.
posted by BostonTerrier at 2:55 PM on January 16, 2017 [23 favorites]

Is your child being cared for full time by the aupair? I would gently suggest that at age 3, he should be in a group environment more often. Minding a 3 year old all day isn't great and it sounds like that he might benefit from a more rigid environment where name-calling isn't tolerated.
Does the new aupair have childcare experience? Can you leave the house to let them sort this out?

What is your overall discipline system and how does rude behavior fit into it?
posted by k8t at 3:04 PM on January 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

I think meeting somewhere in the middle here. Naming his feelings and helping to contextualize those is great (i.e. You feel sad Jasmine had to leave and we all miss her), but allowing those big feelings to run roughshod over everything else is going to make him feel out of control. Help him understand that even when you feel sad, you can manage that sadness. Part of this is not making other people around you miserable- like by calling other people names, for example. It's ok to stop that behavior, like Toddles said, "You feel mad, but even when you're mad it's not ok to hurt other people with our words." If you're ok with a bit of screen time, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood has some really great episodes that might help him contextualize all of this along with catchy little jingles "It's ok to feel sad sometimes. Little by little you'll feel better again."

Similarly, he's taking cues from you. You are sounding like his emotions are feeling overwhelming - there's only so long I can take that, for all our sakes'. That sends the signal that expressing emotions is scary and overwhelming and my parent is the only one who will save me from this terrible fate. It's not giving Maddy a chance to see how to calm him and sends the signal that you don't fully trust her either. What if you simply left the house for a bit and let them figure out how to work together and comfort one another? A confident "I'll be back in a little while!" with a kiss and a quick trip to the store could help you all see that things will get better.

Sticker charts could work, but they need to have a really specific positive behavior like "I ask Maddy for help" and need to be something he's successful at at least 50% of the time to start and something he'll get frequent positive feedback for. Setting the goal as "having a good day" is too vague and open to interpretation and a full day is much too long for a 3 year old to wait.
posted by goggie at 3:05 PM on January 16, 2017 [7 favorites]

And also on the Daniel Tiger tip, there is a whole episode and song dedicated to "Grown ups come back". I only mention this because my 3 year old is obsessed and sings these little songs to herself in totally appropriate contexts to get herself on track. It's amazing.
posted by goggie at 3:09 PM on January 16, 2017 [8 favorites]

Is it possible for Adam to have a FaceTime call with Jasmine? It might really help him to see that she hasn't disappeared from his life, that she is still his buddy, etc. He might be avoiding getting close to Maddy so that he doesn't have to feel such loss again. But if Jasmine is not lost, then he need not fear losing you and Maddy.
posted by xo at 3:54 PM on January 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't have much experience in the way of child behavioral issues given that my son is barely a year old, but came in to say that FaceTime with Jasmine might actually be a negative interaction. He might be too young to process loss, but at the same time, talking to her might serve as a reminder that she isn't around any more and any headway Maddy makes will be erased every time he talks to Jasmine.

Eventually he will have to learn that not everyone is going to always be there... with the exception of parents, who will (most likely and hopefully) be around "always" - where always is a timeframe that he can grasp right now.
posted by Everydayville at 4:00 PM on January 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think a sticker chart specifically focused on "using kind words" and "saying 'I'm sorry'" (when those unkind words do happen) would be a great idea. You're right that "having a good day" is too abstract, but the idea that we don't call people names or tell them they're stinky is age-appropriate. Maddy can be a big help by saying, "OUCH! Those words hurt my feelings! I feel sad now!" and other similar statements that focus on how the words make her feel, rather than on your child being good or bad. Maybe Adam could also work with Maddy on a list of "things that make me feel happy" and they could try those things together especially on rough days.
posted by epj at 4:25 PM on January 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Try writing a letter to Jasmine with him. Sit down, have him dictate how he feels. Then open a new page and have him write a letter to Maddy. Help him articulate his feelings about her in socially acceptable ways. "You think she's stinky? We can't say that. Maybe we can say 'I'm uncomfortable with you hugging me because I'm afraid you'll go away.'"

I write letters with my 3 year old for a lot of things. She finds it really soothing and validating.

He's going through a really big, scary change and this probably has to do as much with fears that you'll go away now as missing Jasmine. Also seconding the suggestion for Daniel Tiger.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:43 PM on January 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, fwiw, my now 8 year old now has no memories of his full-time nannies as well as close family friends from his younger years. In fact, I just quizzed him on it. Nothing. And my kid has a tremendous memory. Maintaining a relationship with Jasmine doesn't make a ton of sense. Sure, you guys can keep in touch with her from a distance, but there is really no need for your child to maintain ties with her. FaceTiming doesn't make sense in the short or long term.
posted by k8t at 5:28 PM on January 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Get Maddy and Adam in to their new routine together as soon as possible, with as little parent interference as you want to regularly have. No amount of talking it out will get Adam on board. He needs to work out his relationship with Maddy and start to build memories. He will learn to trust Maddy and that will happen by the two of them establishing their own dynamic and rules. He has to test her out to figure out her limits and what she expects from him. Sure, in a perfect world he wouldn't call her stinky. He's three. Stinky is a totally workable statement for Maddy to address herself. As a parent in that situation I'd remind him to use kind words. If I was the nanny in that situation I'd probably start trying to sniff out where I'm stinky. I do think it is a type of reward to "rescue" Adam from Maddy and you are actively working against her in that way, without meaning to. The days will seem long but this transition will pass so quickly!!
posted by Swisstine at 7:08 PM on January 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Three is a tough age, so I wonder if there are some developmentally appropriate behaviors that have started that just happen to coincide with the transition of Au pairs? I always loved the series by Louise Bates Ames- "Your Three Year Old" (or four year old etc) The subtitle for the three year old book is Friend or Enemy. :) This PDF, that includes tips from that book for behavior issues include ignoring bad behavior and praising good behavior, trying to stay clear of power struggles, and using consequences that relate to their behavior. I would work with the Au Pair on these strategies, and try and look at Adam's behavior from a developmental stage instead of looking for causes and solutions.
posted by momochan at 8:37 PM on January 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Have you asked him specifically about Maddy? What it is he doesn't like about her, and why he doesn't want you to leave when she's there? Not when he's upset, but at a quiet time when Maddy is not there and he's in a good mood, have you asked him what's wrong? First, because even a small child is allowed to just not like someone. And sometimes it's for the same reasons adults don't: personally clash, or maybe she really is stinky to him (pheromones are real!). But sometimes kids say they don't like someone because they don't know how to tell us that they're afraid or that something bad is happening to them when the people they trust aren't there to protect them. I'm not saying that's necessarily the case, and of course you wouldn't want to falsely accuse Maddy of any sort of misconduct. But since I haven't seen anyone else raise it, I wanted to put out there the possiblity that something bad actually could be going on when you're not around. I'm not saying it's true. I'm saying that you owe it to Adam to find out.

If it's not an abusive situation or just a genuinely bad fit that requires a change of placement, I think you've gotten a number of good, developmentally appropriate suggestions. I just don't want to assume out of hand that Adam is being irrational and needs to be forced through bribery or punishment to stick with Maddy as a caregiver unless you have ruled out the possibility of some genuine cause for his distress. And if it turns out that he just doesn't like her, for the same reasons that you as an adult sometimes meet someone who just rubs you the wrong way, that's okay. One lesson it's good for kids to learn is that even though they have to be respectful to everyone, it's okay to just not be happy when you're around someone, and it's okay if he would prefer to spend a large portion of his waking hours with someone who is quieter or louder or sillier or more thoughtful or more physical or less physical or stricter or more gentle than she is. And if he wants or needs a different style of caregiver, I think that it would be totally legitimate for you to try to get that for him. He has to learn to get along with everyone and be polite to everyone and to express his emotions in developmentally-appropriate acceptable ways, but asking him to spend a ton of time with someone he might just not like is pretty stressful. So once you've ruled out the idea that Maddy may actually be doing something wrong, consider whether you could switch au pairs if it turns out that Maddy may just be the wrong fit for him.
posted by decathecting at 10:43 PM on January 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

My baby is little, but I've been pondering something I read on a blog, that emotions need to be released, not intellectualized. So acknowledging his feelings is great, but he may be needing a chance to really have a good cry or get angry about Jasmine leaving. If there's a safe way for you to help him let that out, it might be nice.
posted by slidell at 1:36 AM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

It might also be that he does not want to connect with Maddy because he realizes (maybe subconsciously) that she will likely leave one day too.

One thing I noticed with my then 3yo is that he kept talking about the classes that he was going to go into as he got older - "when I'm done with Miss Anne's class I will go to Miss Betty's class, when I'm four. And when I'm five I'll go to Miss Cathy's class". This was a thing for a while. So the ability to predict the future in that way seems to be (or was for us) a large contributing factor to his feeling stable and secure. I'm not sure how you mitigate that while remaining in an au pair situation that changes every year.
posted by vignettist at 8:23 AM on January 17, 2017

Adam's mean comments are not ignored, and I don't validate them. I tell him that kind of talk is not allowed in our house, and if it continues, he faces consequences.

Adam is also in preschool 3 mornings a week (12 hours total).

Thanks to everyone who answered in a compassionate way.
posted by emkelley at 11:07 AM on January 17, 2017

I have an au pair and I know a bunch of people who have also had au pairs, and have heard about this issue coming up before. Some of the suggestions are things you're already doing, but I would also suggest letting him go on a special trip (or a couple of special trips) with Maddy, like to museums, the zoo, an indoor place place or something. And make sure they are getting enough time alone. Giving them bonding time alone is probably the fastest way to rip the band aid off, even if some crying is involved. Let her do her thing. Most au pairs are not childcare professionals and they need time to practice - trying to deal with toddlers while mommy and daddy are around and distract them away from their parents is a pretty advanced level childcare skill, in my opinion.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:36 PM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was an au pair to a 2.5 year old who had similar issues. I kept her busy with walks to the park and she would cry when we got back and Mom wasn't home, but after a couple of weeks, she was fine with Mom leaving for the day and we got down to more fun playtime. (YMMV - it was 25 years ago!)
posted by cindywho at 8:50 AM on January 18, 2017

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