How to Help Your Au Pair Connect With Your Kids

by cv harquail on July 9, 2011

How do you want your au pair to interact with your children?

We spend a lot of time in our handbooks and meeting going over the house rules and general family principles, but often we leave implicit our our expectations for day-to-day kid – au pair interaction. Sure, we want each au pair-kid combo to work things out themselves (it’s their relationship, after all). But not every au pair has the perspective, the experience, and the vision to know just how to manage your lovely child(ren).

Our au pairs need us to teach them how we want them to interact with our kids.

201107071419.jpg —  Are you clear about how they should be guided? Taught? Held responsible? Disciplined?

—  Are you clear about what kid behavior is okay, and what’s out of line?

—  Are you up-to-date and realistic in your own assessment of ‘who’ your kid is, and what s/he needs from a caregiving adult?

We get a lot of emails, like the one below, from au pairs seeking advice about a specific child, a specific behavior, or a specific situation. We can’t (and don’t) address each one here on the blog.

But, we should be sure to coach our au pairs on how to work with our kids and help them connect with our kids.

  • What do you do, to teach your au pair how to interact with your kids?
  • What do you do, to help to shape the relationship between your kid(s) and your au pair?
  • What do you do, to point your au pair to resources that might help her/him connect with your kid(s)?

Dear Au Pair mom,

I’ve been an au pair for 6 months and have just rematched. I’ve been with the new family for 10 days. They have three girls.

I spend a lot of time with the 3 year old girl. I never took care of a child this age and I don’t know how to deal with the crazy mood swings. She goes from the loveliest little girl in the world to this bossy monster crying and making scenes on the street.

Is that normal for that age? Do you think it’s gonna get better once she gets used to me? Is there anything I can do so she’ll trust/like me more?Also, they are a Dutch family and I speak really poor Dutch, so the language barrier exists.

I feel really helpless. I think I’m a great match for both parents and older girls, but I really wanna get past this.

Image: swing set from Dave McLean (aka damclean) on Flickr


anonamomma July 10, 2011 at 4:10 am

My first bit of advice to you would be address this with the parents – if there is a language barrier then quite simple write a letter/email to the mom/dad (because you can write this at your ease and take the time to ask the questions you need to ask).

If the language barrier is an issues (even with the parents then ask them to reply in writing to make sure that your understanding is correct and then perhaps have a meeting with them to go over everything.

But if you are asking them if a 3 year old having tantrums is normal then there is a very famous little poem that I think comes into play here:

“There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead; and
When she was good, she was oh so very good, but when she was bad she was horrid”

Also as YOU are not familiar with the behavours of 3 years olds – you must educate yourself on this – read books specific to this age group (even on line websites offer great advice) and let the parents know you are taking this step – to educate yourself then they will see you are making a true effort to adapt.

Hope this helps, good luck and please keep us posted.

Busy Mom July 10, 2011 at 10:38 pm

anonamomma, this made my chuckle. we used to recite that nursery rhyme frequently in our house a it fit our youngest to a tee, including the curl.

Rebecca July 24, 2011 at 7:16 pm

My son was the trouble at all when he was 2 but then when he hit 5 OMG it was like night and day..All I can say is “This too will pass” so hang in there

Taking a Computer Lunch July 10, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Yup, I’d say the mood swings are typical. I recall when my son was 3, I turned to his dad and said, “This must get better – the human race hasn’t died out.” The “terrible twos” were one thing, but 3 was much worse! That being said, one way to deal with them is to establish boundaries and to be firm about them. Don’t let the child use her temper to get her own way, and do praise her for being good. “I really like it when you say thank you,” “Thank you for helping me, now we can do something you want to do,” etc. Ask the parents for help with stock phrases in Dutch that will help you ease the transition.

Ask the parents what the preferred discipline method when the child does have a temper tantrum. Do they want you to stop the activity? Do they want you to hold the child gently until she calms down? Do they want you to isolate the child?

It will get better, but 3-year-olds need both discipline and an opportunity to get their own way (but not when they’re screaming). Hunger and exhaustion will play into their frustrations and outbursts, too. Once you get to know the child, you’ll have a better sense of how to handle her so you both can have a good time (at least most of the time).

JJ Host Mom July 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm

For this specific situation: Yes, this is absolutely normal for a three year old. I have two of them, and although there are also days when the really try my patience. And I’m their mom. TACL gives good advice. In particular, I’d like to highlight one thing she said – if the child is tired or hungry, that will almost always bring on a tantrum. To make things more complex, 3 is an age where kids are transitioning from nap to quiet time, and sometimes they need more sleep than they’re actually willing to get. Similar with food -they tend to be picky eaters, and sometimes will go hungry rather than eat the broccoli on their plate. Think about whether these might be factors and talk them over with your host parents. Also find out what discipline system they use. I’ve heard the 1-2-3 magic book linked on the left is good, if they don’t have one in place already.

In terms of general advice, (with the caveat that I don’t know your specific situation, I’m just responding with how I’d approach this as a HP) I’d say that it’s not fair for an au pair to perceive a child’s behavior as a personal conflict with the au pair. The au pair is hired as an adult to take care of a child, not as another child to engage in conflict. As a professional, it’s up to you to find a solution to the child’s behavior, to the best of your ability, and resolve as many of the behavior problems as you can. You should do this in partnership with your host parents. Do some research, make some suggestions, solicit their feedback, and agree on an approach together.

The only time it’s okay to contemplate rematch in a situation like this is when you’ve attempted to engage the support of your host parents in working out the situation, and they have said they don’t want you pursuing any of the solutions you recommend, and haven’t given you other options. Or they’ve repeatedly undercut your disciplinary efforts, even after you’ve talked to them about it. In this case you’re in a no-win situation and you might want to consider finding a new host family. But otherwise, please stay and try to make it work, through problem-solving, open communication, and partnership as an adult in your host family.

Melissa July 10, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Great advice! Viewing your role as an adult who is given the task of caring for the child and thinking about it in terms of how you can best understand and address any issues that come up, vs. just one conflict after another, hopefully in partnership with the host parents, is key.

NorAupair July 11, 2011 at 8:09 am

Totally agree with everything said above. It’s nothing personal with you when she swings from ”good” to ”bad”. I had a situation like yours, I had a 3.5 yrs old girl, and the circumstances didn’t help our first weeks. Upon my arrival, the mother started her new job, father was always away traveling as he was a bussinesman.It was a huge change for the children (4 girls) who were used to be all the time with their mom, and suddenly there I was and no mom.It was ok with the other 3 girls ( 2,5,7 yrs old) but not for her. She had such mood swings, and she wouldn’t even let me to talk to her to calm her down, she was screaming to cover my voice. What worked from me, was to take her in my arms (no matter the screaming,or the kicking) and carry her around while constantly speaking in a calm steady voice. Or sometimes I was giving her some time to calm down in her own space and then to think and tell me why she behaved the way she did, or what bothered her and got so angry. While talking to her like she was an adult, I did not forget to treat her as a child, I think this combination is a successful one, from my experience. Try various approaches, educate yourself, and then if nothing works then you should speak with the parents. But first try your best!! :)

I hope that you will get over this soon.Let us know how is it going :)

Taking a Computer Lunch July 14, 2011 at 7:26 am

I’m going to return to this thread, because for those of us who host APs for years (into the school years) engaging with the kids becomes an ongoing issue. There is a certain amount of ennui that I have experienced with my typically developing child (who is about to greet his 7th AP) and have seen in other families with older typically developing children. They’re not quite old enough to do everything for themselves — certainly not get themselves places, but they want more independence. For the AP who can’t break through their tough exteriors, it just becames easier to be “the adult in the house” and read, do laundry, clean up, than engage. While I don’t expect her to force interaction on my child, I do hope that in the course of the year they develop a relationship that makes it clear to my child that she is more than a babysitter.

My situation is complicated by The Camel, my special needs child who has a teenage body and functions as a young toddler. The APs I host spend most of their working time caring for her directly: bathing, dressing, diapering, feeding, and providing simple home therapy (e.g. going for a walk, swimming in the pool, simple stretches). The learning curve to care for her is steep and can be overwhelming for a new arrival (DH and I remain on hand to assist in the first weeks). Because of this, my typically developing child gets left out of the mix, remains independent, and somewhat aloof.

DH and I are creating strategies to prevent this from happening with AP #7, and one will be to have her take him to the movies and an ice cream without us, or go down and shoot hoops in the first weeks. My own father said to me, “If you want to get a boy engaged the best thing you can do is to go out and throw a ball around for a while. He’ll open up.”

The strategies to assist APs to engage with kids changes over time, but parents must be pro-active.

Julie July 24, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Communication is such an important part of any relationship. There are some great ideas here .

HM Pippa August 17, 2011 at 3:19 pm

We too have a 2/3 year old and recognize how incredibly challenging their behavior can be, even for the parents. A major focus of their development is pushing boundaries and exercising increasing control over their environments. As a caregiver, negotiating the balance between allowing the child control and maintaining safe and sane boundaries, is REALLY challenging. And the strategies care-givers use need to change as quickly as the child–what worked two weeks ago, might not work now.

There needs to be LOTS and LOTS of communication between the AP and parents. Not to complain about the behavior, but to really talk and share ideas about what works, what doesn’t work, especially for dealing with the trickiest situations. We let the AP know that we have lots of private discussions about how best to deal with 3yo’s challenging behavior, and we welcomed her observations and ideas as we shared ours. We expressed lots of sympathy to AP about the challenges, and tried to be proactive about identifying frustrating behavior, rather than allowing AP to either complain or repress complaints about behavior.

What not to do?
Don’t paint a rosy picture for the parents, telling them everything is just fine, when really you’re frustrated and not dealing with the situation well. Host parents are aware how challenging the behavior of 3yos can be, and denying the challenge closes communication without find a solution.

On the other hand, don’t whinge. The point of talking with the parents is not to whine and complain. Rather, be ready to talk about specific behavior or situations that are most challenging, and ask for advice or share your experience–what you have already tried. (Keeping in mind that with a 3yo in 2-3 weeks it will all change anyway ;-)

Don’t take advice from your friends or the internet or you mother without discussing it with the host parents. Parents know their child better than you, your friends, and your mother, and have opinions about the type of guidance and discipline they want for their child. Your job is to learn the parents’ approach and use it. Don’t try a different approach until you know the child better and have discussed the problem with HPs and have their agreement about trying a different approach. What might seem like a good idea to you and your mom might not sit will with the host parents.

An example: I was not happy or appreciative to learn that our AP, on advice from her mother, had begun changing our toddler into pajamas for naptime. Only after struggling with the 3yo, who now insisted on pajamas, and puzzling over where she got this strange idea, did I learn that the AP was having trouble getting child to nap and that she had acted on her mother’s advice to put the child in PJs. This harmless-enough change hit a hot-button issue from my own childhood when an abusive caregiver forced me into PJs for naps. AP couldn’t have known, but she sure could have talked to us FIRST to find a solution to the naptime struggle that was acceptable to all of us.

NoVA Host Mom January 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm

For me this needs a two-prong approach. First is giving a child of any age an opportunity to interact one-on-one with a new AP at an activity they really enjoy (for our 3yo, it’s anything arts & crafts, but for the 22mo, it’s all about doing something active). Don’t be shy as a HP to tell the AP about the different personality quirks for each kid, too. If one loves baths and cozy PJs and a bit of quiet book time at bedtime, but the other needs a more direct into bed and close the door (but will be up at the crack of dawn for her own quiet time), then let them know. Provide links to web sites for the local parks & rec activities, library, etc. Show them where your stash of parenting books are in the house (and tell them which you use to keep the bookshelf level and which you actually thought might have something useful inside). If you want time out effected in a specific way, say so. Write down how it works in your house. And lead by example: if you want your child to use good manners, and the AP needs a refresher as well, make sure you also say please and thank you and then point out to the AP how setting a good example is one of the best ways to teach your kids about manners).

The second to help the AP and kiddo bond is to reinforce to the children that the AP has an important role in this family and is not to be dismissed or ignored. It’s all well and good to give the two sides a chance to interact over a game of Old Maid or Candyland, but if the charges don’t think the AP has either staying power or a reason to be respected, then while they might like the playtime, there won’t be a solid long-term relationship built (either as a caregiver, auntie-type authority or older friend/sitter, however the age of your child dictates things go). When in those early weeks, take every chance you have to direct questions or requests for playing or books to the AP. For us, when someone charges up to us with a book or crayons in hand, and we are al around together, we make a point of asking the daughter if she asked AP, or if AP might want to play, or what did AP say about that. In the very beginning, I usually get blank looks back from the AP as she is also learning the ropes, but after a couple of weeks it’s old hat. When AP says to get your coat on and someone looks at Mom, the answer they get is “What did AP tell you to do?” I’m sooo not a child psychologist or anything, but I think it helps the kids figure out where to put their AP in the heirarchy of the family and understand what to make of her (so to speak).

For APs, I cannot agree strongly enough that this is way not a “phone it in” kind of job. No, it is not likely your career, however it is the job you signed up to do so at least in our home we expect you to do it with 100% effort. That does mean you need to take the opportunity to do your own research, ask questions about the kids to the HPs, and use the resources around you to plan activities, meals, and playdates for your kids. If a scenario comes up you are unsure about and the final resolution can wait until HPs are home, make a note to be sure to talk about it. Tell us what happened, how you handled it, and ask if there are other ideas for addressing it (or if you got it right the first time, which I notice happens a great deal with the proactive APs). I prepare before going into work for my job, teachers do the same thing. I think we all do. So it is not unreasonable to expect you to take a little time (it can be a little as 30 minutes while you are waiting for the dryer to finish) to prepare for your next work day or work week. Take pride and ownership in your job. It is a very important one, and job satisfaction is not something that comes only from the HPs saying so. It comes from knowing you did the best you could from start to finish. Even if your charge is in the Terrible 2/3/4/5/6/12/13/14/15/16…

AFHostMom January 3, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Great post–we’ve always tried to reinforce that the AP is an adult, on equal footing with the parents. When we are all there, we are all of equal authority. For the first several months, our 7 year old would try to “tattle” on the AP but every time, we told her “it doesn’t matter, (AP) is an adult and doesn’t have to (go to bed/eat all her dinner/play the game my daughter wants her to).” She doesn’t do this anymore. I will be curious to see if this transfers over to the new AP or if we have to reteach the kids that she is their caregiver and not their peer.

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