How Much Can an Au Pair Improve Sibling Dynamics?

by cv harquail on June 28, 2011

Each host family is its own self-reinforcing social system. Families have their own logic, their own climate, their own emotional rules, values, priorities, and patterns of behavior. Although the new person in the family/home means that everyone adjusts, au pairs adjust more to the family than the family adjusts to the au pair.

Family systems make au pairs accommodate & adjust

The relatively imbalanced accommodation, where the au pair adjusts more, happens mostly because the family’s patterns of behavior are so ingrained, so interconnected and so regularly reinforced that it’s hard for an au pair to make a dent in them. The family has more members, the family has the power position of employer (vs employee), the family is in its own home culture, and the family remains while au pairs come and go.4832956549_332a732bdb.jpg

Of course, some au pairs can push family dynamics one way or another. “Wet Blanket” and “Miss Pointy Boots” got their host families depressed and agitated. Other au pairs seems to spark more happiness, more gratitude and more appreciation (in addition to what might be attributed to the parents actually getting the help they need).

Even if they can’t change the whole family system, can an au pair intentionally improve certain kinds of host family interactions — like sibling relationships?

I’ve been stuck on this question, having read Bettina’s email, about her host children’s angry, ugly behaviors towards each other.

My first response was to imagine Bettina taking charge of the older two girls, showing them how to behave, reinforcing good behavior and ‘counting to time out’ the bad behavior, even if the parents weren’t on board. Ever the optimist, I was assuming Bettina could make a positive difference in her host family.

But then I thought about the power of the family system, and the lack of support of the host parents, and wondered whether to tell her, “Yeah, go ahead and rematch. Go find a loving family where they don’t shout hateful things at each other.

Here’s Bettina’s story-— after you read it, come back and tell us:

  • Can an au pair change a family’s dynamics for good?
  • Can an au pair improve sibling dynamics?
  • How should Bettina respond?

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an au pair June 28, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Just wanted to note that the links between the posts don’t work. I’m told I’m not authorized to see drafts.

cv harquail June 28, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Thanks aap- I was getting a little to fancy there I guess. Fixed now. ;-) cv

Jessica Kittrell June 29, 2011 at 8:33 am

Wow! What a tough situation to be in. In short, I do think that it is cause enough for a rematch, but not without trying first.
If I were Bettina, I would sit my host parents down one more time and make clear the severity of the situation. She should try and speak openly about her concerns and see if the parents are willing to make a plan of action with her so they are all on the same side. She should also, in no uncertain terms, tell them that this is a condition if they want her to stay and that otherwise, she is not comfortable in this environment and will request the rematch. I think this is an amazing opportunity for an au pair to have a very real and positive impact on the family! But only if the parents are willing to make some changes. Honestly, I feel so bad for the kids. What an awful environment to grow up in! And to think it is okay…yikes. Just think of the long-term impact Bettina could have on these young children. It could be life changing, parents willing that is.

NorCAMom June 29, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I completely agree with Jessica. Not that it’s her job to be a family therapist, but perhaps by firmly pointing out her boundaries, this is an opportunity for the parents to really see an outside perspective on the family dynamics and have a real change to re-engineer things.

With that said – family dynamics are really really tough, and I doubt that Bettina’s influence will be enough. If the parents aren’t willing to embark on family therapy level of help, I think she will find herself in too deep.

But – perhaps her rematching will be a wake-up call for this family.

NorCAMom June 29, 2011 at 5:48 pm

(upon re-read, I was not disputing anything Jessica said or that she implied Bettina would be or should be a therapist).

Calif Mom June 30, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Wow. Blech. Makes my stomach hurt just reading the descriptions. An estrogen-steeped version of Lord of the Flies!

I have two girls. They fight. AND they play together. I grew up myself with a lot of sibs. We weren’t all best pals all the time, but we sure didn’t wish each other dead; and certainly if we did, we didn’t say it out loud! Toxic environment for sure; I don’t think Bettina is being hypersensitive here.

Bettina sounds like a strong person to me. If she didn’t sound strong, I would not say this: it is *possible* that she could shock the parents a bit. At some level, one or both of them may recognize that they have a real problem here, and one or the other of them may also feel powerless to push for a change and has just been going along with it because it is impossible to fix all by yourself. So, if Bettina does go to them, and show them what their family dynamics look like today, as a neutral third — expressing what she has told us, that she really likes them and appreciates their support of her — it is *possible* that a drawing of a boundary that this has to change or Bettina will seek a more peaceful family might give one of the parents the boost they need to overcome the momentum of daily family craziness and spur the two parents to seriously address the issue.

BUT, I wouldn’t set my expectations too high. If they haven’t seen behaviors in their kids that warrant them getting some support through counseling, where they can all learn better skills, I’m not sure they will see it now just because their new au pair “thinks she knows all about families”. Bettina should expect blowback, to be turned into the “other” quickly and pushed away.

But even if they don’t react that way–even if they do agree with her and “promise to change”–then she must consider whether she wants to spend her au pair year enduring more of the same behaviors and the very slow progress of shifting a family’s culture. Because even if the host parents both thank her for pointing this out and shaking them up and book an appointment with a family therapist tomorrow, the meanness and arguing will NOT change overnight. It takes work and practice to change family norms, and with so many interpersonal relationships playing out here, this situation is even more complex and will take longer.

I think Bettina has to decide if that’s a risk she’s willing to take. The payoff might be wonderful. Big risk, big potential reward.

Not doing anything–either rematch or trying to point this out to the host families as a real, big problem they need to address–not doing either of those thing is a guaranteed miserable year.

Wow, Bettina, so sorry you’re facing this. It’s a watershed situation for you, for sure. You might also need to consider how much and when to talk to the counselor about the family’s “style”.

Good luck! I’m very impressed that you want to help the kids, aren’t just saying “OMG! Get me out of here!!!” That takes compassion and maturity. Good for you!

3rd time HM June 30, 2011 at 11:22 pm

I would recommend going into rematch and fast. Honestly, the agency should re-evaluate this family to see if they are an appropriate family for the program. I definitely expect au pairs to be able to handle some level of sibling rivalry but this is extreme. In addition to being employees, au pairs also have rights and deserve a good, structured working environment. A family like this is not going to change and they are certainly not going to take the advice of a young au pair seriously enough to give you meaningful change. If I were in your shoes, I would tell the area director you cannot live with them and ask to live somewhere else until you find a family in rematch in order to avoid further chaos. It is a difficult decision but you will be happy you made it. I hate to say it and perhaps it is a bit cynical- it is hard to change others- but it sure is easy to take matters into your own hands. You are ultimately responsible for your own destiny….. my thoughts are with you. Good luck!

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