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  • Writer's pictureLena Agree JD, PsyD

Beware of these 5 RED FLAGS with Your Nanny/Au Pair

Research has revealed that certain behaviors exhibited by child caregivers are highly correlated with negative child outcomes. These are:

1. Intrusiveness

2. Negative affect/regard

3. Harshness

4. Ignoring

5. Overwhelming

Behaviors that fall into any of these categories should be avoided entirely by your nanny/au pair and anyone else caring for your child. Let’s look at each of them below.

1. Intrusiveness

Intrusiveness often looks like “interrupting the child’s activities rather than supporting the child’s engagement and exploration of the environment” (Halle et al., 2011, p. 10). Examples of intrusive behavior include:

  • Rigid adherence to rules that are not for the safety of the child

  • Inflexibility

  • Refusal to allow the child to take the lead during interactions and to engage in play enough of the time

  • Overly controlling behavior, such as physically restraining the child for long periods, or preventing the child from doing an activity for non-safety reasons (this would include punishment)

2. Negative regard/negative affect

Negative regard or affect is (perhaps obviously) the absence of positive regard/affect, which is defined as the consistent feeling and expression of positive feelings for the child as a person, notwithstanding the child’s behavior. We discuss positive regard in more detail in the post entitled, How Your Nanny Can Support Your Child’s Social-Emotional Development, Part 2/4: “Warmth." Negative regard can be identified by the presence of negative interactions between nanny and child. If she is exhibiting negative emotional responses, such as anger, if she seems depressed or unhappy, detached or emotionally distant with your child, something is wrong and should not be ignored.


3. Harshness (verbal or physical)

Verbal harshness includes:

o a stern or insensitive tone of voice

o yelling

o use of unkind language like “shut up”

o interrupting

o sarcasm

o name-calling

Physical harshness includes spanking and other physical forms of discipline, but also rough or abrupt touching. Whenever she touches your child it should be gentle and should communicate sensitivity, care or affection.

4. Ignoring. The research describes two types of ignoring in the child caregiving setting:

a) Actively ignoring the child. This includes:

  • not paying attention to the child

  • neglecting the child’s attempts to get attention from the caregiver, whether verbal or physical

  • ignoring the child’s need for help with peer or sibling interactions or disputes

b) Failing to engage. This includes ignoring signs that the child is bored, restlessness, and allowing the child to wander around or remain unoccupied for extended periods.

A nanny/au pair who is sitting on her phone for long periods while your child is forced to occupy him/herself is ignoring your child.

Children who are ignored will often find ways to occupy themselves, and may look content or even happy to the untrained eye. However, it can be helpful to remember that children will adapt to their environment out of necessity. If they seem to prefer being alone over being with their nanny/au pair, that likely indicates a problem in the relationship.

5. Overwhelming the child. When a child is overwhelmed s/he is flooded with too much emotion or stimulation that it has become unmanageable. There are several things that contribute to a child being overwhelmed. These are all things which your nanny should avoid:

General chaos. General chaos is created through any of the following:

  • Disorganized spaces

  • Unorganized activities

  • Inconsistent rules

  • Too much noise

Overly intense interaction. Interactions that may be too intense for your child include:

  • Asking the child too many questions

  • Giving directions to the child with too many steps

  • Providing unclear instructions

  • Furnishing too many toys at once

If your child is overwhelmed, s/he will let you know in various ways, such as:

o Becoming unresponsive (zone out)

o Crying

o Fussing

o Turning away

o Leaving the room (if mobile)

Children, especially young children, are not biologically able to manage their big feelings. Thus, if your child is overwhelmed by anything, s/he will not be able to soothe his/herself, and needs to be comforted immediately by a sensitive caregiver through words, eye contact and touch.

A very important point: As stated in other posts, when a child looks like s/he needs a timeout s/he really needs a time in. This means isolating children as a punishment when they are crying, fussing, not being attentive, etc. is harmful, and will overwhelm them even more. It should never be an option for your nanny/au pair no matter how difficult the situation.

Check out the post on 5 Important Factors that Effect Your Nanny's Success for more helpful research-based tips.

Based on research by:

Atkins-Burnett, Sally, Shannon Monahan, Louisa Tarullo, Yange Xue, Elizabeth Cavadel, Lizabeth Malone, and Lauren Akers (2015). Measuring the Quality of Caregiver-Child Interactions for Infants and Toddlers (Q-CCIIT). OPRE Report 2015-13. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Halle, T., Anderson, R., Blasberg, A., Chrisler, A., & Simkin, S. (2011). Quality of caregiver- child interactions for infants and toddlers (QCCIIT): A Review of the Literature, OPRE 2011- 25. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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