Latest Question for Kate

“I live in Auckland and have been working from home during lockdown, and to help out, my partner’s sister moved in to help us look after our 3 month old daughter and two year old son.  We really appreciate having her here but she has a completely different attitude to discipline and I think her expectations on behaviour are too high and her responses too harsh. I’m noticing my son becoming more nervous and quieter.  Should I be worried that this is going to have lasting effects on my son (she’s great with the baby)?”

So pleased you wrote in.  This is such a tricky situation that many of us have had to deal with – when well-meaning family, friends or whanau offer support, and genuinely love our children, but have a completely different approach to childcare.  This difficult situation often arises with:

  • shared custody arrangements
  • older family members who can have outdated attitudes and expectations
  • people who have limited experience of small children
  • people whose own children are simply a different temperament with different needs to our children

Children are, of course, all born unique, with their own little personalities largely governed by their genetics.  However, a babies’ brain cells are only about 25% connected at birth.  Babies’ brains are primed and programmed to make the majority of their connections by being in a regular relationship with another human being.  So, what I’m saying here is that you and your partner remain the most stable, regular relationships that your son is developing alongside, so how you respond to him will be the biggest and most important influence on how he comes to see himself and how he expects to be treated by the people in the world around him. 

Basically, if the majority of the time, he can expect kind, gentle, attuned, timely responses to his physical needs, anxieties, thoughts and feelings, his brain will wire to create an internal belief that he is worthy of love and attention and he will grow to generally expect people to treat him with respect and kindness. This is called being securely attached and has a whole bunch of benefits which even include things like living longer and healthier lives, having better boundaries, happier relationships and so on (if any of you would like to know more about this, please let us know and we could do a whole blog on it!!!)

However, you are seeing increased anxiety and withdrawn behaviours which you believe are a result of your family member’s approach to him which personally I would want to address if this childcare arrangement is to continue.

Let’s think about things from your family member’s perspective first – she is really trying to be helpful and is perhaps feeling a little overwhelmed herself, even taken for granted? Who knows?  You could start with how appreciative you are of her help and all the positive things that you see she is doing and ask her how she is feeling about the situation and if she needs more time to herself and/or more support.

Next, you could work on a collaborative approach – saying that you are noticing a concerning change in your son’s behaviours and would like to work out, alongside her, how to help him through these difficult times.  Get yourself armed with some good information about how stressful changing situations can be for children and how important it is to be even more gentle with them at this time.

If she is resistant and insists her way is the best, then you could identify which situations she finds most frustrating i.e. mealtimes, and agree that you will take over these or have an agreement that every time she is getting frustrated with your son, she comes and gets one of you to take over and deal with it.   

Alternatively, you can discuss how everyone approaches childcare differently and it is too confusing for the children to deal with two completely different approaches from one moment to the next.  Outline how you approach your son’s needs and behaviours and ask her to mirror them, even if she doesn’t feel they are the best, in order to keep consistency for the children.

If nothing changes, and you continue to see an increase in worrying behaviours, you have some difficult decisions to make including weighing up whether or not her help is worth the possible cost to the emotional well-being of your son. All the best with this tricky situation and I hope this helps.

X Kate