Coping With A Change In Caregiver

Carrie and Trevor’s moms decide to share a part-time nanny. This is the first nanny for eleven month old Carrie; Trevor, seventeen months, has recently said goodbye to his nanny who cared for him for one year.  Carrie is a feisty little girl, constantly grabbing toys out of Trevor’s hands, fussing when she eats and is being changed, and crying when it is time to go home from play dates.  Trevor is rather mild mannered, and when Carrie grabs something from him, he easily finds another toy.   When the new nanny arrives, Trevor is impassive and a little curious.  His mom warmly greets her and introduces her to Trevor.  They sit together for a while as Trevor becomes engaged in the nanny’s game of “hide the hot wheels.”  But when Carrie and her mom arrive – late – they have less time to spend on introductions.  Carrie’s mom is anxious about leaving Carrie with a stranger, takes out her multi-page list of emergency numbers and instructions and hastily goes over it with the nanny. When Carrie’s mom is ready to go, she places Carrie in the arms of the nanny. Carrie sobs and wiggles to get out of the sitter’s arms.  The moms leave, Carrie’s with a heavy heart and feeling terribly guilty.

There are many dynamics that resulted in the different reactions that Carrie and Trevor had to the new caregiver.  First, is the age difference.  Carrie is most likely going through a stage of development called Separation Anxiety, the term given to babies as young as six months and as old as eighteen months who cry when separated from their primary caregivers – usually their mothers.

Second, how children cope with a change such as a new caregiver is strongly influenced by their temperament.  Some adapt quickly, like Trevor, while children with a temperament like Carrie’s get very anxious whenever there is a change or transition.   Third, Carrie and Trevor’s moms responded very differently to the upcoming change.  Trevor’s mom had time to help him see that the new adult is someone she trusted and liked, while Carrie’s mom was frantic and expressed her anxiety by going over page after page of instructions.

 Is Separation Anxiety normal?

Separation anxiety is a normal and healthy stage of growth and development, but it can be unsettling.  A once easy, social baby is now anxious and teary every time you leave the room, even when grandma or close friends are with her.

Most babies younger than six months adapt pretty well to other caregivers as long as their needs are being met. But sometime between four to seven months, babies develop a sense of “object permanence” and learn that things and people exist even when they’re out of sight.  When your baby can’t see you, that means you’ve gone away. And since babies don’t understand the concept of time, they do not know if or when you’ll come back.  Whether you’re in the kitchen, in the next bedroom or at the office, it’s all the same to your baby. You’ve disappeared and your little one might now react by crying and resisting attention from others.  As your child grows into a more mobile toddler, he becomes even more uncertain about being separated from you.

Once your child gets a little older, his memory of past experiences with you will comfort him when you’re gone and he’ll be able to anticipate a reunion. But during the period of Separation Anxiety, he’s only aware of the present.  When you leave him with another caregiver, he probably will scream as though his heart will break.

 How can I ease the separation?

  • Your child is more susceptible to Separation Anxiety when she’s tired, hungry or sick. If you know you’re going to go out, try to schedule your departure so that it occurs after she’s napped and eaten.
  • Don’t make a fuss over leaving. Instead, have the caregiver create a distraction (a new toy, a visit to the mirror, a book). Then say good-bye in an upbeat voice, reassure her that you’ll be back later and leave quickly.
  • Remember that most children will stop crying within minutes of your departure. Her outbursts are for your benefit, to persuade you to stay. With you out of sight, she’ll soon turn her attention to the person staying with her.  There are some children who may cry much longer.  This is difficult for caregivers and parents, but eventually the crying does stop.
  • Practice being apart from the baby. Invite the babysitter over in advance so she and your child can spend time together while you’re in the room. Leave the room for short periods of time so that the baby sees that you come back.
  • Stay upbeat and calm. Try not to let your child pick up on any feelings of apprehension. By the second half of a baby’s first year, she will look to you for emotional cues whenever there is an ambiguous or uncertain event – like the appearance of a new caregiver.  If you look sad or wary, or if your voice does not have that same melodic tone while greeting this nanny, the baby will pick up that something is not right.

 My toddler is over the Separation Anxiety stage.  How will he cope with changes now?

New caregivers, no matter how experienced and loving, will be a source of anxiety for your child up until he is five or six years old.  An unknown big person is going to be in control – it is a scary prospect.

Children need to be able to predict how the adults around them will behave and to anticipate what will happen in daily life.  They feel most comfortable with routines and familiar faces.  But change is inevitable, so children must learn to manage it. Through everyday changes, a child learns whether he is a person that can adapt and whether adults are to be trusted to give information on areas important to him.

The good news is that children are adaptable, especially when they are prepared in advance.  Once a child learns that a change is about to occur, he or she will begin to make the emotional adjustments to accommodate the new situation.  It is your role to make the transition to a new caregiver a smooth one, with advance preparation and with the intention of nurturing the new child-caregiver relationship.  Positive experiences of coping with small daily changes will help him face the big transitions later.

  • Do not hide the fact that you’re going out for the day, trying to delay the tantrum you are anticipating.   This will only increase a child’s anxiety. The unknown is much more frightening than the known.  Children need a little time to process information and may have a lot of questions for you.  “Is she nice?” “Will I be able to watch Hannah Montana?”
  • Allow your children to make as many of their own decisions as possible when getting accustomed to a new caregiver.  Autonomy offsets anxious feelings; it reminds children that they have control over some things in life.  “You can have mac and cheese and then go out for dessert.  Here is five dollars for you to spend on the dessert of your choice.”
  • Pre-schoolers can quickly convert their anxiety into energy if you give them a project to do to prepare them for their caregivers:

o He can draw a “welcome” sign to greet the new caregiver.

o He can set aside two favorite books that he wants the caregiver to read.

o He can make a basket full of his favorite toys to share.

  • Create a goodbye ritual.  Read “The Kissing Hand” or “The Good Bye Book.”  In “The Kissing Hand,” for example, mother raccoon kisses the palm of little raccoon so that whenever he is lonely, he can put his palm on his cheek so he remembers that his mother loves him.  Your ritual can be to kiss your child’s palm right before you leave, every time you leave.
  • When you say a pleasant, loving, and firm goodbye, do not linger. Reassure him or her that you’ll be back — and explain how long it will be until you return.  Use concepts kids will understand (such as “after lunch”). Give her your full attention when you say goodbye, and when you say you’re leaving, mean it; coming back will only make her more anxious and teaches her that crying is the key to getting you to do what she wants.
  • Follow through on promises. It’s important to make sure that you return when you have promised to. This is how your child will develop the confidence that she can make it through the time apart.
  • Be positive, truthful and straightforward. “I am going to work now.  I will be back right before supper.”  If you get that tantrum you were expecting, be matter-of-fact, while acknowledging her unhappiness, “Yes, I know you wanted Jenny to come instead of a new babysitter, but Jenny was busy today.   But I think you will have a great adventure with Tina.  I heard that she likes to play beauty shop and you can style your hair in wild ways.”

Eventually, your child will be able to remember that you always return after you leave, and that will be enough comfort while you’re gone. This gives kids a chance to develop coping skills and a little independence.  In fact, helping a toddler develop a relationship with a new caregiver is a gift.  She learns that the world is full of people who are loving and can take care of her.

 How does temperament affect my child’s ability to cope with a change in caregiver?

All humans are born with a particular temperament, that is, inborn traits that make up our personality. Temperament is neither good nor bad; it is more like having blue eyes or brown ones.  Although we can learn to modify our temperamental impulses by how we are treated or influenced in our environment, our basic temperamental makeup remains the same throughout our lives.

Our temperament makes some situations easy for us and other situations difficult.  Therefore some children have an easier time coping with new caregivers while others are very agitated by the change.  Here are some suggestions for a child like Carrie, who is emotional and intense and not as adaptable to new situations as Trevor.

  • Use familiar objects to ease anxiety during transitions.  Have your child’s favorite stuffed animal or blanket at hand and tell the new caregiver that this will comfort her.
  • Let her be part of the transition.  Let her choose something to do and tell the caregiver to let the child take the lead.
  • Ease into new activities.  Talk about the new activity, use the caregiver’s name frequently, and give the child a few minutes to transition to it.
  • Offer advance notice when an activity is about to end. “In a few minutes, we will go upstairs for your nap.”

For children who adapt more quickly and take changes in stride, parents and caregivers should encourage more exploring and learning opportunities. These children are usually more flexible and more keen on a change in routine even than their parents.

  • Offer them a variety of new experiences: a new park, a trip to the library, etc…
  • Be sensitive to their signals.  When a child is easygoing, adults sometimes take for granted that any change is okay.
  • Let them know about the new situation ahead of time so they can mentally prepare and look forward to it.
  • Be certain to add one-on-one time to their daily routine.  As much as they like to be out and about, these children need individual attention, too.

 How to deal with the guilt?

For some parents, it is a no-win situation.  When your child cries and reaches for you, there is a part of you that is pleased that you and she have bonded so completely and that you are the love object, the center of her life.  But at the same time, you may feel guilty that you are leaving her.

When a baby or child willingly or happily goes to the nanny or caregiver, initially you may feel relieved.  But you also may feel jealous and begin to resent the nanny.  Feeling competitive for your child’s love and affection is a very shaky foundation for you and your caregiver.

Parenthood is a roller coaster of emotions but what most child psychologists agree upon is that the message to the child should be 100% unambiguous: this is going to be a fun day with a super playmate. Remember that sharing your child’s care with a nanny gives your child an opportunity to learn new things about herself and about others that will broaden and enrich her life.

 Will my child love the nanny more than me?

No, no, no.  Attachment theory, initially developed by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1960’s, refers to a secure base, a place from which a child feels safe enough to leave and explore the world around him.  Children have a primary attachment figure – usually mom – that is an unshakeable bond that lasts a lifetime. A child who is securely attached to the primary figure is more able to form important emotional bonds with other caregivers. The relationship children have with their nannies and babysitters provides children with a sense of security and safety during times when the primary attachment figure is not present.

Therefore, don’t be distressed if your son or daughter still cries as you leave.  Again, this is a normal reaction and usually lasts only a few minutes once you walk out the door.  If you are worried, wait ½ hour and call home.  Most likely, you will hear happy sounds in the background.  Likewise, don’t be distressed if your son or daughter jumps happily into the arms of your caregiver.  This is a healthy developmental milestone when your child has learned to trust someone in the outer world, and will lead to healthy relationships throughout his or her life.

 How do I best prepare my child for a new caregiver?

It is important for children to have as much consistency and stability in their care arrangements as possible. In the best of all worlds, your nanny will stay until your child goes off to college! Unfortunately, all parents know that even the best planned childcare arrangements are fragile and that transitions from one caregiver to another are inevitable.

What parents can do first, is to try to work out problems with their nanny if they occur, to avoid unnecessary caregiver changes.  Second, you should try to make this change the only change that is occurring at this moment in the child’s life.  Third, if possible, try not to make the change while your child is in the middle of Separation Anxiety.

  • In order to maintain consistency and stability, write out the child’s schedule of play, naptime, outdoor time, etc… so that the caregiver sticks to the familiar routine.
  • Have your new caregiver meet the child in a calm, relaxed manner -when you are not in a rush.
  • Prepare emergency phone number list, including friends, neighbors and pediatrician.  Have the children’s full names and dates of birth listed as well.  Make sure the caregiver is aware of allergies and other pertinent medical information
  • Explain to your child why the change in caregiver is necessary and encourage her to express her feelings about it. She may be sad, angry, frustrated or frightened. Don’t tell you that she’ll “love” the new nanny or babysitter. Don’t tell her that she’s “silly” to make such a fuss. Do tell her that you know the new nanny is very nice and loves to play.
  • Be positive. Your child will look to you for emotional signals. If you are happy and enthusiastic, she is more likely to take the transition in stride. Conversely, your anxiety will rub off.
  • If your child selected her favorite game, toy, book or stuffed animal to show her new caregiver, make sure the new nanny knows that the child picked out something very special to show her.
  • When you come home, after the nanny leaves, take 10 minutes to give your undivided attention to your child. Research shows that it is not the fact that parents work or have a nanny that has a negative impact on children, but that children are ignored when tired parents come home and immediately start the dinner rush. Therefore, when you come home take a few minutes to read, snuggle, or share a hot chocolate together.

 It may seem like your crying, withdrawn or sulking child is feeling abandoned or betrayed.  But do not fear.  Learning to love, count on, accept and feel safe with a caregiver other than yourself is the best thing you can do for your young child.  These relationships teach your children trust, and your coming home each time you say you will helps them feel secure.

References,Readings and Internet Sites

 Barnet, A. & Barnet, R. (1998). The youngest minds.New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Gonzalez-Mena, J. & Eyer, D. (1989). Infants, toddlers and caregivers. Mountain View,CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

 Lerner, C. & Dombro, L. (2005). Bringing up baby.WashingtonD.C.:  Zero to Three Press.

 National Research Council. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods.Washington,D.C.:NationalAcademyPress

Shick, L. (1998). Understanding temperament. Seattle: Parenting Press.

Zero to Three Foundation. 

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