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How to be the best nanny or sitter for a family during divorce

Here's what to do (and what not to do) as a nanny or sitter during a divorce, plus expert advice to navigate your changing role.

How to be the best nanny or sitter for a family during divorce

As a nanny or babysitter, you see families through many changes during your work. At some point in your career, it’s likely that you’ll even work with a family as they navigate a divorce.

About 15% of marriages end each year, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, and national divorce rates still indicate that about 40% of all marriages end in divorce. Experiencing divorce as a household employee can be awkward and sometimes difficult — even if the split is amicable — and it can be hard to know what your duties are and how to talk to your charges during this change.

Here, therapists and divorce lawyers offer their advice to help you provide the best support and care for your family during a divorce or separation — plus, a few things you should avoid when navigating divorce as a child care provider.

Managing changes to your nanny or sitter job during divorce

Because a divorce means two separate households and two separate parents to communicate with, a nanny or babysitter has some new waters to tread. The biggest one is deciding how to merge both parents’ rules and expectations, which requires a lot of conversation, preparation and adjustment from all parties.

In most separations and divorces, a nanny’s or sitter’s job only gets busier. Now you have two schedules to maintain and two houses to provide care in. In the weeks and months immediately following a divorce, it’s totally normal to not have a 100% consistent schedule; the best you can do is provide care for your charge while adapting to the new environment.

Here’s how to make sense of your new “split schedule” and some tips to make the transition easier:

1. Communicate with both parents

“It’s important that the person taking care of the children is able to clearly communicate what expectations are and what rules the children are expected to follow,” says Roseanne Lesack, a child psychologist and the director of a child psychology clinic at the University of South Florida.

To do this, ask both parents (separately or together) questions like:

  • What rules are going to be the same? (bedtimes, screen time, etc.)
  • Do you have new expectations or rules now? (chores, eating habits, etc.)
  • Are there new routines we need to implement? (school drop-offs, pickups, activity scheduling, etc.)
  • Are there new hours? (staying later, arriving earlier, working weekends, etc.)

Your contract or work agreement should be updated to reflect any changes. Also note that open communication with parents should never be about the divorce itself or who is at fault. The conversations you have should always be about how you can support all members of the family during this time.

2. Ask for a shared calendar

On most calendar apps, you can “sync” to multiple calendars in a single window. Ask for access to both parents’ schedules as they relate to their child so there is minimal confusion and more transparency. If that’s not an option, ask for each parent’s schedule at the start of each week and keep track of it yourself. This might include doctor’s appointments, late meetings, children’s school events, etc.

3. Have a running list of necessities

When a divorce is new, children usually have to pack bags to move between houses while the parents get situated. Unfortunately, that bag is often short a few things. Make sure you have a list of “must-haves” to double- and triple-check your charge’s bag before you head out. You could even have a backup bag you carry with all of these items to make sure your kiddo always has what he or she needs.

Your “must-haves” list might include:

  • Diapers and ointment.
  • Bottles and formula or breast milk.
  • Any medications, if needed.
  • Extra clothes (including PJs and underwear).
  • A pair of everyday shoes.
  • Toys and books.

  • Blankets, stuffed animals, pacifiers or other comfort items.
  • Toothbrushes and toothpaste.
  • Movies or tech (tablets, white noise machines, etc.).

4. Coordinate logistics

Even in amicable divorces, communication can be sorely lacking between parents. Always make sure that you know who is picking up children from school, whose house you’re driving the child to each day and who is taking over when you leave. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for clarification if you feel like the plan for the day or week isn’t clear enough.

How to support kids during a divorce

Your first and foremost priority as a caregiver, in any situation, is providing stable care for your charges. Here are some tips to help the children in your care as they process a divorce or separation.

Make space for emotions

B emotionally available to kids as they come to terms with their family’s situation. Gladys Rodriguez, a clinical psychologist in Houston, says this means giving children room to express their emotions and to let them know that crying, being upset or even wanting to be alone is OK. Asking general, not probing, questions like “How are you feeling?” or “Do you want to talk about anything?” can also help children voice their concerns and emotions in a healthy way.

Schedule time with both parents

Divorce can be especially hard on children when one parent moves out of the home. To make this transition a little less abrupt, Rodriguez says, nannies and caregivers can “create opportunities to communicate with the parent who won’t be living with [the family].”

Work with both parents to schedule times where the out-of-home parent can pick the child up from school, talk on the phone or meet up for activities like a trip to the park. These little windows of time are great for soothing children and they also let both parents know you’re making an effort to support everyone.  

Note: If there are custody issues or supervision mandates in place, schedule time with friends and family the child is allowed to see.

Be open about what’s changing

Another way to help your charges handle a divorce: Let them know exactly what will change in your daily routine with them. After you and both parents have established your new day-to-day routines, communicate openly with the kids about the new schedules. This will help them adjust to and find comfort in their new reality.

Shirin Pekyar, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sherman Oaks, California, says children going through a family divorce “need to know how the change is going to affect them — down to the details of where their belongings will be, where they’ll sleep and who will be there to pick them up after school.”

For example, you might tell your kiddo:

  • “I’ll be the one picking you up from school every day, but on certain days we will go to mom’s new house.”
  • “At the end of the week, you’ll be going to meet dad for ice cream!”
  • “We are going to pack a big bag full of all the things you want to take your dad’s new house so that you have everything you need while you’re there. Then we’ll bring it to your mom’s house.”

Keep in mind that you should always make sure to share only what parents want the kids to know. You may have to answer some questions with “I’m not sure, let’s ask your mom/dad.”

What NOT to do as a nanny or sitter during a divorce

If you’re navigating the ins and outs of a divorce or separation in the family that employs you, you might feel like you’re walking on eggshells. You may also worry that you will say or do the wrong thing. Every family is different so you will need to judge your specific situation closely.

However, here are a few things to avoid when your charge’s family is going through a divorce:

Don’t take sides, especially not in front of the children

Barring severe cases of abuse or neglect, says Elsya Greenblatt, of Greenblatt Law, LLC in New York City, you should continue to communicate respectfully with both parents. This is not only professional but beneficial to your charge(s) who may notice your change in attitude or interactions.

Do not explain the reason for the divorce to the children

If you happen to know the circumstances that are leading to the divorce, there is no reason to share that information with your charge. That is up to the parents to share.

Never assume your role is ending

There are now two houses and two schedules to navigate, and the parents will always want their child to have some consistency in their life.

Don’t stop talking to your employers

It’s important to keep parents updated on the children and what’s going in their lives and to ask questions about how you can help them in this current transition. Greenblatt also recommends using a group text or email chain if both parents agree to it so that there is 100% transparency.

The bottom line

Nobody wants a marriage to end, but as a nanny or sitter, you may feel emotional for both the parents and kids who are affected by a divorce. Of course, your job is to care for children (and their parents) through life’s ups and downs. Being open to communication and staying emotionally present for your kiddos is the best thing you can do when their whole world turns upside down.

Once they’ve grown accustomed to their “new normal,” your family will be so grateful for your support and your charges will continue to be happy, healthy little humans.