with author Jackie Morgan MacDougall
when the caregiver suffers, the child suffers
It's one of the most important decisions you'll ever make, hiring a nanny or babysitter to care for your children. But recent reports of nannies who've abused, and even murdered, kids in their care have left parents with more and more questions and less confidence in childcare providers. The Nanny Confidential episode of The Ricki Lake Show sheds light on the topic and provides expert advice, complete with dos and don'ts of hiring a caregiver.
Recently, Lori Leibovich, Executive Lifestyle Editor at Huffington Post, wrote about her own experience with her children's nanny and one terrifying day she'll never forget.
"The kids aren't safe with me."
The voice on the other end of the phone was strangely calm and matter-of-fact. It was my nanny (whom I'll call Liane), and she was home with my two young children.
I was confused. "What do you mean they're not safe?" Did she mean there was a gas leak? A power outage? I didn't understand.
"I am not okay," she explained, her voice now trembling. "I can't take care of them. It's too much. They aren't safe."
How could things turn so wrong when Lori had done everything right? She had hired Liane through a reputable New York agency and personally checked references. Plus, Liane got along brilliantly with the entire family.
Lori remembers about a month before that terrifying phone call, things began to change. "Liane started to seem off. She still showed up on time, she still was conscientious. But her affect was blunted and she seemed distant and distracted." After questioning her, Liane shared that she was going through a breakup, which set Lori's mind at ease. Who isn't "off" when nursing a broken heart, right? But the red flag began to wave more vigorously a few days later when Lori got a call at work. "She said she was finding it increasingly difficult to handle the kids when they were tired or uncooperative. She seemed convinced that my son was purposely challenging her -- "playing her," as she put it. She told me she wasn't getting much sleep and she wasn't sure she had the energy to be a babysitter anymore."
Most of us (at least the ones who will admit it) have been pushed to the edge by a child. It's reasonable to expect that a sitter could also find herself at the end of her rope on a bad day. But while we can relate to being tested, it's hard to imagine the person we hired could actually harm our child.
Ultimately, Lori discovered that Liane was experiencing a psychotic break and had experienced mental health problems in the past. But with no way of knowing every intricate detail of a child care provider's past, how can we spot the warning signs that someone could be headed for a breakdown? Psychotherapist Stacy Kaiser provides her expertise.
Warning Signs of a Breakdown
• Change in appearance, personality (disconnected, agitated, down) and activity level (active people suddenly cooped up, a homebody suddenly headed out to bars every night,)
• Experiencing several setbacks or difficult life circumstances: breakup, money, family problems, etc.
• The inability to bounce back well from those problems
Oftentimes, an emotional breakdown is confused for mental illness but they are not the same. Kaiser says the best way to differentiate is by the actions, over the thoughts. Most of us have had thoughts or feelings that may even scare us, but we would never in a million years act on those thoughts. "Mental illness is not just thinking about something, but actually doing it. They start to obsessively think about it, create a plan and look for scenarios to actually carry it out."
But when it comes to an emotional breakdown, there are ways to help prevent it from happening in the first place. Kaiser says it's important to recognize two common symptoms that can send a caregiver into a very dark place; nanny burnout and resentment. Day after day, a childcare provider gives, gives and gives some more, which can lead to exhaustion, (especially without taking an adequate break). They're so busy taking care of their employer's children that they stop taking care of themselves. That's where the resentment comes in. Sometimes nannies, feeling either bossed around, neglected or taken advantage of by the very people who've hired them, can build up a wall of bitterness that can turn love and patience into frustration and aggression. Parents need to think of the needs of the childcare provider and treat them the way they expect their babies to be treated—with compassion and respect.
And if that nanny reveals their true feelings? "Anyone who says 'I'm not doing well and I can't be around your child right now,' believe them, especially if they're in charge of your children," Kaiser adds. While taking time off from work or finding an alternative childcare option can be difficult, it's important to provide that break (or let that employee go) — it's not the risk.
"That nanny is taking care of your most prized possession. You better believe when the caregiver is suffering, the child also suffers."