My Host Mom Hits Her Child — what should Au Pair Do?

by cv harquail on October 19, 2015

Au Pairs are very aware that they are expected to follow the parenting philosophy of their host parents.

3427340523_4ced059a9c_mAu Pairs have to ‘get over’ cultural differences and differences in family tradition that suggest a particular way to handle a situation.

Usually, Au Pairs draw on their own cultures’ and families’ parenting practices when they find that the Host Parent’s approach simply isn’t working for them.

Then, as long as they’re not going entirely against the host parents’ preferences, Au Pairs try to put their own spin on working with their host children. Most times the Au Pair can find a way to work with a host child that fits inside the parents’ expectations.

The Au Pair who writes, below, has been trying to follow her Host Mom’s advice…. but when the Host Mom’s frustration escalates and the child still refuses to eat, what happens next horrifies the Au Pair.

The Host Mom hits the child– something the Au Pair thinks is wrong.

Is this a situation where the Au Pair should rematch?

Dear Au Pair Moms,

I hope that I can get some advice, because I have no idea how to handle this situation with my Host Mom. I am a first time au pair and I have been here in (European Country) for a month now.

My boy is a lovely, cheeky 8 year old boy. Personally I think he is over-scheduled, but i recognise I am not a parent and this is how he is being raised – not my business. However, he does not like to eat.

With all the activities, it’s important that he does eat.

He only ever wants to eat a mouthful at a time and then says ‘I don’t want it’ ‘I can’t eat it’.

I can understand his reaction — his tummy must be so tiny of course he can’t eat very much in one go.

Personally I would like to see him have 4/5/6 tiny meals a day to get the calories into him, rather than one massive lunch meal which he can never finish. But again, he is not my child.

However, the big problem here, is that when he refuses to eat, his Mother loses her temper.

Like, really loses it. She screams in his face, pulls his arms, slapped his face and kicks him. When he cries, she screams and he runs away, I see and hear her catch him and hit him. He is screaming and crying and she force feeds him the same size portion as she and I have.

It makes me feel so sick to watch her force this poor boy to eat and hit him when he cannot eat all she has given him.

He clearly has a complex about mealtimes now, before he has even sat down he is already saying I don’t want it. When she’s not there, I can sometimes get him to eat a few more mouthfuls, but then she comes back and screams some more, which makes him scream and eat even less.  But I’ve also seen her hit him when he doesn’t want to do homework which I just can’t stand.

Its not even about getting him to eat more, its the fact I have to watch a child be hit and kicked, which in my opinion makes me partly responsible.

I feel so sick. My own Mother says that I should leave.

In other ways, the Host Mom seems like a caring parent.  My own Mother says I should stand up for him and tell her its not OK to hit him, but I can’t forget the fact I’m a 23 year old, first time au pair. Am I in a position to tell her how to raise her child??

He clearly loves her very much, always wanting to be with him Mummy I barely get a minute alone with him to talk with him about how he feels.

I have no idea what to do, please if anyone has any advice I would appreciate it so, so much.

Thank you

Image by Gary Hons on Flickr


Should be working October 19, 2015 at 11:52 pm

Heartbreak. Unbearable.

Is this illegal in the country you are in? I thought at least Scandinavia has some pretty draconian anti-spanking laws.

Is there a dad? A grandmother?

If it were me, I’d be prepared to leave the situation, and then I would talk to a teacher or someone who is a “mandated reporter” (they must have that?). I would tell them everything. Video if possible. Depending on my relationship with the HM I might try talking to her as well. Child abuse hotline? There must be such things in Europe.

I’m so sorry. For this poor child.

Former Au pair October 20, 2015 at 11:35 am

You’re right, for example it’s been a law since the 70’s something against any kind of “disciplinary” actions like spanking and in ANY way hitting your child in Sweden. This is not tolerated. It’s child abuse, no discussion. Growing up in a society where this is the shared belief, I was horrified when I learnt that my American host family used spanking etc. I felt sick and I had asked them before I got there what kind of punishment/disciplinary actions they used and they had never once mentioned it.

Just as I feel sick now reading how the mother treats her child. I cannot support this behavior and I assume that kicking most definitely is not tolerated in any European country where you might find an Au pair. It feels like eating will forever be something he will struggle with if this continues.

Boy Au Pair Spain October 20, 2015 at 11:48 am

That is interesting that you feel so intensely about it. It does seem to be a cultural rather than merely a legal thing. It is illegal here in Spain but yet spanking is probably more common here than in the UK. Especially hitting a child round the face. I had never seen that before arriving in Spain. I remember seeing that for the first time when I arrived. I spent all day wishing I had have had the balls to collar the guy that did it but now I realise it is actually fairly common.

Boy Au Pair Spain October 20, 2015 at 3:35 am

Most countries in Europe, the uk being a notable exception, have laws against spanking. However this is beyond spanking anyway. In the UK the lawful chastisement of a child is a defence to common assault but not anything that leaves a physical mark on the child. Kicking a child is clearly abuse and it seems the mother has an anger management issue.

What I would do is record the mother doing it and then confront her. It could be that she doesnt realise how out of control her behaviour has got. I would insist she sees a therapist (both for her and her childs problem with eating perhaps) or else I would be forced to leave and go to the police. If you dont feel brave enough to do it yourself maybe a family member or friend could help?

Hopefully the therapist would not have to report to the police. Sadly, not all countries have the necessary confidentiality laws to deal with child abuse in a therapeutic way. German is a good example of where they do. In the UK the therapist would be obligated to report.

Dorsi October 20, 2015 at 8:43 am

It is surprising to me that you think mandated reporting is unfortunate. If we put the needs of the child at the top, how is mandated reporting bad? There is a long history of doctors, therapists, clergy, child care providers who suspected abuse but did not feel compelled to act because they weren’t sure abuse was real. Then there were tragic outcomes for the children. I am surprised in the US APs are not trained as reported and required to do so.

Boy Au Pair Spain October 20, 2015 at 10:17 am

We are not talking about a situation in which we are not sure if the child is lying or not. What would happen in this situation if there were mandatory reporting is… the au pair would contact the police. The au pair is obliged to report. In Spain, for example, the police have a duty to seek prosecution for all crimes.The police are obliged to prosecute. In this case the mother would be found guilty of hitting her son. Then social services may ask themselves whether the child should stay with a convicted child abuser. It is not an option, how could the child stay with their abuser? Social services are obliged to remove the child. Where exactly does anyone direct their mind to what is in the interest of the child? Someone has to be able to make a rational decision on what the child would want (as if they had the maturity to consider the long term effects on their future) rather than being focused on the punishment of the abuser.

I am currently a medical student and very much hope that if a mother such as this came to me as a doctor, sincerely worried about her behaviour and looking for help, I would not have to hand her over to the police. The police are there to bring bad people to justice for their crimes. Nothing more nothing less.

AuPair Paris October 20, 2015 at 11:06 am

Having worked with children in the foster system, and with children in group homes, I really don’t think children should be taken away from their parents except in extreme circumstances. I think spanking kids is wrong, and I do think it does psychological damage. But I think the psychological damage done when social services are required to intervene can be much worse. That is not to disparage social services at all – they do a wonderful job (at least in my country) under very stressful circumstances for very little pay. But unfortunately, in the UK there is little flexibility in the regulations for this kind of situation. Ultimately parents often don’t get the help they need, and children often end up in a worse situation than where they started.

I can understand the impulse to punish bad parents, and save kids, but parents tend to need help not punishment, and often the kids don’t get saved but shuffled off into another kind of hell.

And with that depressing note – I actually don’t know what I think about mandatory reporting. I think that it can really help to have stringent guidelines to save people from feeling that they have to make their own fraught decision, and live with the consequences… But when it comes to putting the needs of the child first… Setting into action a path that will lead them to be taken away from their parents isn’t always a good way to serve those needs, from what I’ve seen.

German Au-Pair October 20, 2015 at 4:40 am

I agree! While I can accept that there are different views on spanking (I personally don’t feel like it has harmed me) there’s a HUGE difference between spanking and losing your mind and hitting your child.
In fact, standing by and doing nothing IS enabling this behavior and it also seems like you simply cannot handle seeing it. I would also tape it and show her or a family member to make her aware. I don’t think you can use such a taping when going to the police as it might not be legal to tape her without her knowledge but she needs to see what she’s doing, especially when you feel like she really cares about him.
Then I would leave and report her to the police who can notify the appropriate authorities. They may not be able to do anything if the child has no marks but you will have done what’s necessary to protect him to the best of your abilities.
What is described here goes way beyond different child rearing practices -that’s child abuse and you should do your best to make it better and then turn your back on such an unhealthy situation.
If you are in Germany by any chance and should find yourself to need a translator, have Cv give you my email address.I’m happy to help in any way possible.

FirstTimeHM October 20, 2015 at 4:44 am

Well, this is unhealthy to say the least. If you want a kid to develop an eating disorder this is the way to go.
Since this happens not only during mealtimes, it’s more of a general issue and probably (my two cents) has more to do with control issues mom has than with the kid.

I don’t know if you get along well with your hostmom.
If you get along well, you could perhaps make up a story that your own mom struggled with your sibling not eating enough and that she got him to eat by splitting that amount into 4-6 meals a day. It’s worth a try…
In most European countries families have the same GP for their entire life and he/she can help you. Most AP’s have the same GP as their host family and you can make an appointment with him/her to discuss this (check your medical insurance first, in my country you’d be going without any co-pay, in some you wouldn’t).

If this doesn’t work, let your agency know, I think that for your own peace of mind rematch would be good. You’re not the parent here and you are in no position to make a change in the way your host mom interacts with the boy.

AuPair Paris October 20, 2015 at 5:41 am

Oof. Hitting a kid is not acceptable. But legally it might be – depending on the country. So I think what is important to keep in mind here is not what is legal – if it’s extreme abuse, yes, of course you have to call the authorities. Unfortunately though, there are very few places in the world where the result of calling social services is a happy and improved situation, outside of situations of extreme abuse.

So, if it’s definitely in the realm of spanking, and not beating, possibly the legality of it is a side-note. What it comes down to then, is how much influence you have over the situation, and how able you are to cope with witnessing it.

Some ideas:

Category: Improbable
– Talk to the HM about it, in a sympathetic manner – from the angle of “it must be so difficult when HK doesn’t eat. It’s such a worry, when he needs his energy so badly!” See what she says.
– Offer to rearrange your hours so that you take over mealtimes entirely. Viewed as a situation of extreme stress for both mother and child, you could possibly give them a break, and help with mealtimes in a way that doesn’t involve hitting. If the HM is open to discussion, you could suggest that she go out to relax during mealtimes. Suggest that she grab a coffee, or shut herself in her office with headphones/a guided meditation on! Of course, I highly doubt that this would work or seem feasible, but I write it simply as a possibility for an ideal situation where the HM knows she’s losing it and needs help to overcome it.

Category: More probable.
-Talk to HD if he is around, if the parents are still together, if it’s not likely to make things worse.
– Casually float the idea in conversation of lots of mealtimes – small snacks throughout the day, etc. Talk about your own experience as a kid with this technique. If you don’t have one – make it up? It’s probably better to tell a white lie than to outright attack your boss’s parenting.
– Casual conversation on cultural difference. Shock at how often kids are spanked in the country. If you can phrase it in a way that means “this is so strange to me!” and not “I am judging you!” HPs might be more aware of what you’re thinking, and train themselves into better habits while you’re there. This is manipulative, in some ways, and I hate manipulation… But it’s better than saying nothing, I think?
– Could you ask to rearrange your hours around mealtimes from some personal motive? Claim you want desperately to learn to cook or something?
– In conjunction with the above, if the schedule allows, involve the HK in cooking as a shared activity with you. Hopefully, you can create new associations with food, and HK yourself, although it is not a long-term solution, because you will eventually leave.

I don’t know. My youngest host kid is VERY difficult with food too. No one hits her. But it can get tense, and I can *feel* mealtimes becoming emotionally charged situations in a really damaging way – but I don’t know how to stop it.

batmum October 20, 2015 at 8:20 am

In my country it is not yet illegal to slap a child but I dont think this scenario is common (at least not for kids now – in my generation unfortunately it was more so). However, regardless of the legal situation – what is going on here is wrong, wrong, wrong. The mother is totally losing control. The child is suffering in these meal time wars. And you are miserable having to stand by and watch it.
It is not up to you to tell this woman how to raise her child or give her parenting advice. However, it is absolutely imperative that you tell her straight up that you are extremely upset by these meal time melt downs and that you are horrified by how she treats her child when she gets angry and you are worried about the effect it is having on the child. I would say to her that you dont feel like you can continue to live in this home if this behaviour continues as you cannot support this regime. However if the mother wants your help and support in looking at better ways to manage the eating issue and discipline you will be happy to engage and support her in that.
Obviously the woman has a temper so it is possible she will turf you out there and then so be prepared for that, but as someone who has battled anger issues I suspect that she is probably as disgusted with herself as anyone else and this might be the tipping point to her getting help and changing her behaviour.
If it doesnt change, then you should leave and possibly report her to social services, the family GP or the police.

NBHostMom October 20, 2015 at 9:42 am

As an au pair, you are not the police, social worker, family therapist, judge or psychologist. You are there to help with childcare and some household duties not to “fix” your host family. You are seeing that your host child is in danger, I don’t know to what extreme of physical danger (does she leave marks?) but, without a doubt, physiological danger. Please report this, either to the police or to a someone who works with children (teacher, doctor etc). Make a plan to find a new host family, record the incidents in writing (time, date and facts) and report this. The authorities and the laws of the country will determine the next step (hopefully appropriate counseling for the mother / family)

As an au pair, you are not in a position to fix this. You are not in an enviable position but based on your email, you know this is wrong. I am assuming you are in a Western European country, all these countries have social service and legal systems for these situations. I’m hopeful the family will receive intervention and support from professionals. Make a plan: gather a log of incidents, report and leave.

ITaupair October 20, 2015 at 10:53 am

I`m a former au pair and I`m now working for a hospital in a position where I see a lot of situations of abuse. My advice is : leave immediately! That`s for your own safety. It`s unlikely that an abusive parent admits was he/she is doing. Sooner or later the child will have some mark and teachers or school nurses will start to ask questions and trust me if I tell you that is a lot easier to believe that the child is abused by the nanny/au pair than the mother.

You`re in a really risky position. Depending on the country an investigation on you can be opened and this can even cause you problems to find future jobs. If I was you I would leave immediately. I will ask a friend to come (as a witness) and communicate your host mom you are leaving now IN FRONT OF YOUR FRIEND,take all your stuff and go.

Please,for your own safety, remember that an adult who hurt a child will not have any problem to try hurting another adult (like you). Unfortunately I`ve seen this scenario happening many times. Just before telling your HM you are leaving make phone call to the police and tell them what`s happening and that you are leaving. Then after you have left,the same da,go to a police station so that your declaration is recorded. This is not a joke, this iss to protect the child and to protect you legally. Good luck!

Boy Au Pair Spain October 21, 2015 at 11:24 am

With these issues there is a tendency towards sensationalism.

Do you really know of cases in which a mother loses her temper and hurts her child then goes on to attack adults? I would find it surprising taken into account the rather unique relationship between child and parent and the specific triggers of her behaviour in this case. I can only back this up through studying English family law (albeit briefly)… in cases in which the father is violent towards his partner it is not assumed that he is going to be violent towards his children. (Rather the child is at risk of psychological abuse from experiencing the beatings of his mother…). I assume that assessing risks also works the other way round – that someone that is risk to a child is not generally a risk to adults without further evidence.

You also suspect that rather than taking responsibility for her excessive discipline that both her and her child would lie to the police and say it is the au pair that has hurt the child. Perhaps rather than you believing that there is actual correlation between these harmful behaviours, you simply feel that someone that is evil enough to hurt their own child is evil in every aspect of their life…? I think this is a mistake and don’t see how the au pair is at risk. I agree there needs to be some intervention in this case, which is a very sad thing, but I think you are being unfair on the mother.

Ginny October 20, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Report, report, report, report. This is above your pay grade, and likely seriously harming the child (psychologically, and perhaps physically too). Who knows what the mother will do in the future, if she becomes even angrier? The boy is in danger. I think you need to involve other family members (a grandparent, host father, aunt, etc.) AND someone in a position of authority (such as a teacher, psychologist, or the police). Also let your program coordinator know what is going on. You are definitely heading for rematch or early departure — but you also have an obligation to do something to help this boy before leaving.

SomMom October 20, 2015 at 8:00 pm

I second the viewpoint of NBhostMom. You must leave. It may be helpful to tell the host family the circumstances are incompatible with your personal morals. Just the threat of leaving may cause some new stress on top of whatever stresses with which the family is dealing. Threatening to leave won’t cause the host family to change, but their response may influence how quickly you exit the situation. My daughter has eating issues and eating is difficult for her. I doubt this is the only thing triggering abusive behavior. I feel badly for the boy. The suggestion above to offer to takeover feeding time is good, if you decide to exit slowly. Also report it to his teachers at school. They must know something is wrong.

American Host Mom in Europe October 21, 2015 at 6:21 am

I’m going to address a different point than most of the others have, because I think they’ve offered good advice already on the situation. What caught my attention was when you wrote that the boy said “I can’t eat it.” I have a 6-yo boy, normally a great eater, who earlier this year stopped eating almost all meat. For a long time he’d just say “I can’t eat it, I don’t like it, I don’t want it…” or he’d start to eat and then spit it out. We figured it might pass, was perhaps a control issue. As time went on (and he lost some weight), we started asking more questions, and investigating further. Turned out he felt he’d choke if he swallowed it. Ok, so we saw a doctor — he had tonsillitis! The doctor felt he probably DID have pain when he swallowed. Antibiotics, things improved a bit, but not much, so back to the doctor. End of the story – this week he was at an ENT, and the doctor felt my son’s tonsils are definitely on the “large enough to justify an operation if we want to go that route” side, and would very likely give him the sensation of choking when he ate.

Has anyone looked into whether there’s a medical condition affecting your host boy’s ability / willingness to eat? I can sympathise with the mother’s frustration, thinking it is just willful disobedience (although can’t sympathise with her resorting to violence and force!). Maybe worth enquiring with your HK (without mom around) if he can explain why he doesn’t want to eat; or asking her, in a calm time, if he’s had any medical check-up related to his reluctance to eat?

Regardless, my heart breaks for you as a caring au pair in this situation, and for the poor boy…and for his mother who needs help to manage her frustration, and I wish you the best! Please — come back and tell us the outcome!!

FirstTimeHM October 21, 2015 at 11:46 am

This is a really good tip and the OP could use it to get the boy and his mom to the doctor. The mom will probably be willing to look into the medical side, even just to be sure it’s not medical. It will probably calm down the mother and every calming down of the mom is worth it at this point. This kid is not treated as he should be.
I really hope the doctor will be good enough to ask about amounts of food etc.

The loss of control reaction the mother has will not be gone by taking the boy to the doctor, but perhaps the tension will break a bit so that she can get out of this pattern.

Should be working October 21, 2015 at 9:50 am

I’ve become a quasi-expert in eating disorders, and this could be anorexia, ARFID, EDNOS or a lot of things, or just normal kid-behavior. Hard to tell from the post. I also have learned that most pediatricians and psychotherapists are stuck in 1980s “knowledge” about EDs (I fired 2 pediatricians this year) and many, many patients are staying sick because of it. (Not mine! Hallelujah! She’s loving high school and plays volleyball and asks for seconds and sometimes thirds!)

The AP could take look at “” and post a question there to try and get more info about whether this is ED, and show it to the HM. Maybe that would help. But the hitting/kicking and loss of control on the part of the HM aren’t going to be “cured” that way.

AuPair Paris October 21, 2015 at 10:33 am

I’m so glad to here that your daughter is in recovery and seems to be doing well. And congratulations for being the advocate she needed with her doctors!

AuPair Paris October 21, 2015 at 10:34 am

to hear* even.

CAmom22 October 27, 2015 at 8:02 pm

So so glad to hear about your daughter. That´s really wonderful news.

American Host Mom in Europe November 10, 2015 at 6:49 am

Any update from the OP or CV on this one? More than any other post I’ve read in the past few years, this one has stuck with me, because it is so heartbreaking on so many counts (and different — not a “here’s the problem we’re having with our au pair” post). Would love to hear what happened next, in the hopes that both the boy and the mother got some help!

cv harquail November 10, 2015 at 9:49 am

Hi AHMiE- I’ve just emailed the OP to ask for an update…cv

cv harquail November 10, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Here’s the reply from the Au Pair herself:

I did try to suggest letting the child eat 4/5/6 meals each day, but my suggestion was turned down.

I am sad to say that I left the situation. I felt very unhappy and I didn’t feel comfortable with the way my host Mother was behaving.

I spoke to a professional in the country and we talked for a long time. She suggested that the involvement of the authorities could/would break the family apart unnecessarily; I could see the boy was clearly happy living with his Mum in all other scenarios than at eating time.

In order to cause as little disruption in the life of the boy as possible, I decided with the professional I spoke to, and my parents it was best I simply remove myself.

Thank you to everyone for the advice.

Should be working November 10, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Sad. But thanks for the update. I always am curious to hear how things turn out with people.

American Host Mom in Europe January 22, 2016 at 4:37 am

I’ve just come back to look at this post and am so happy to see an update, thanks CV and OP!

I’m sorry for the outcome, but think it was probably the best approach given the circumstances, and hope that things improve for the mom and boy!

Comments on this entry are closed.