Difficult conversations: How to navigate through 4 common, yet tough, situations with your nanny

Tiffanie Drayton
Aug. 23, 2018

Truth be told, there’s no such thing as a perfect nanny. We invest valuable time and resources into finding the right caregiver, then expect them to be stellar stand-ins in our absence. Yet none of us are perfect, and we’re all bound to hit bumps along the road.

In fact, the relationship with your nanny can be one of the most complex and difficult relationships you’ll cultivate. It blurs the line between personal and professional, and can sometimes be fraught with power struggles and misunderstandings. As tough as it may get at times, remember to keep your cool and have civil discussions, because maintaining continuity of care is still the best thing for your kids.

“Infant-toddler research over the past 20-plus years consistently points to the impact of early relationships as a predictor of healthy development,” says Alyce DesRosiers, author of “The Nanny Manual: How to Choose & Nurture the Perfect Childcare Partner.” “Very young children need to trust that the person caring for them can respond consistently, predictably and reliably.”

To maintain the important connection a child makes with its child care provider, parents and nannies should be prepared to address potential difficulties in their relationship. Here are some of the most common difficult conversations parents are likely to have with their nannies — and tips for working it out.

1. Your nanny broke a rule or failed to meet expectations.

Most families establish rules and expectations for their nannies at the beginning of their relationship. But unless a nanny has been provided with an Encyclopedia-style reference guide to knowing the ins and outs of your family life, there will be room for misunderstanding.

Each nanny has her own personality and a career’s worth of experiences around which she has formed her nannying style. Remember that sometimes what seems like a blatant disregard for something can be less intentional than you think.

Still, there will be situations where issues have to be confronted head on. You, as a parent, should never shy away from difficult conversations when they’re necessary to have.

“[With] a young nanny I had many years ago, I felt like she was taking the kids on too many personal errands, and so I had a conversation with her,” says Rachel Levy Lesser, a working mom. “I was open and honest about it with her and made sure to be clear that I didn’t want the kids on the move so frequently. If you let it build up inside of you, that’s just no good.”

Families should have realistic expectations of their nannies. Susan Scheftel, a Columbia University psychologist and child psychoanalyst who often consults with parents about the parent-nanny relationship, uses the term “good enough mother.” This term, coined by British psychoanalyst and pediatrician D. W. Winnicott, refers to the belief that over time, a mother stops expecting herself to be perfect and settles into the role of motherhood in a more natural, realistic and imperfect way.

“We should expect the same from a nanny, because everyone has their own strengths and limitations,” Scheftel said. “That’s really the best anybody can be — good enough.”

Pro Tips:

  • Don’t hold it in! Confront problems as soon as they arise to avoid building conflict and tension. When issues are immediately tackled, more time can be spent focused on finding resolutions instead of sorting out unresolved feelings.

  • Focus on the situation that needs to be addressed, not the person. For example, instead of saying “you are not playful enough with the children,” offer a plan of action like “How about taking the kids to the park more frequently?”

2. Your family is going through a rough time.

Life is full of unexpected hardships. Couples divorce or experience financial difficulties. Family tragedy can strike in the form of sickness or even death. Even the smallest of disagreements can seem like much more if a family has to confront personal problems in front of a caregiver. When families are going through a rough patch, it can have a big impact on everyone involved, and a vigilant nanny will surely notice.

“I was working with a family for a little over a year when the mother told me they were getting a divorce,” says Katharine Perry, a nanny and consultant who helps families and nannies build better relationships. “When the mother moved out, there was a lot of stress on their child, and I felt like some adjustments could have been made to make the transition easier. I suggested some things, and they were a bit offended. I should have known that having someone that close to your divorce and the effect it might have been having on your child is a sensitive subject.”

Maintain open communication when dealing with difficult personal situations, but also have a mutual respect for boundaries set by both parent and nanny. For example, a family may need additional support from a nanny during hard times (working extra hours or on days off), but they should also be respectful of the fact that the nanny has her own life and responsibilities.

Pro Tips:

  • Set a day to discuss the difficulties your family is facing. No one wants their personal life to become the subject of discussion with an employee, but caring for your family is what your nanny is hired to do! A conversation does not necessarily have to become a deep dive into your life’s struggles: Focus on the impact your kids may experience. For example, you can say something like, “We are currently dealing with (insert difficulty) and I thought you should know because it may impact the kids.”

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for additional support — but be sure to establish boundaries. Finding additional support when navigating hard times is crucial, and your nanny could potentially be the perfect candidate to offer a bit more assistance. Do you need her to keep an extra watchful eye on the kids to see if the stress of the situation is having negative impacts? Do you need her to stay a few extra hours here and there or help out on days she may have had off? Don’t be afraid to ask, but also be clear that she is free to decline.

3. Your nanny wants a raise.

A nanny’s salary should be proportional to her experience and the time she dedicates to providing the best possible care for your kids. It should also increase over the years to match inflation and the rising cost of living. Conversations about wages and pay can drive a wedge between a family and a nanny if they are not handled in a respectful and timely manner.

“I was a nanny for eight years, and the hardest conversation I ever had with an employer was raising my rate after seven years of nothing,” says a nanny, who prefers to remain anonymous. “It was extremely uncomfortable. I hated confrontation, but my self worth and need was greater than the anxiety I had about telling them.”

Families who employ nannies should be proactive about setting a fair wage and establishing raises up front, going so far as to build them into their nanny contract. A written and signed contract that establishes both pay and anticipated wage increases will leave no room for misunderstanding. In creating this document, families will not run the risk of losing a great caretaker, which can have adverse effects on children, according to experts.

“Parents who fail to pay a livable wage or who fail to pay wages for work performed increase the risk of turnover,” DesRosiers says. “In turn, it can be expected that high turnover rates among nannies affect quality of care. A child who is cared for by a revolving door of nannies, each of whom leaves too soon and too often, simply doesn’t have the opportunity to develop a trusting relationship with an adult responsible for their care.”

Pro Tips:

  • Do your research. It’s best to be aware of standard pay and annual raise rates for nannies. According to our 2018 Cost of Care survey, the average nanny makes about $580 a week in the U.S., or about $14.50 per hour. But you should also factor in any credentials and certifications, like CPR and First AID, when setting a fair wage. Offering fair pay up front will decrease the need for the raise conversation in the first place.

  • Include raise expectations in your contract. Every working relationship should be protected with a contract and that’s no different when you employ a nanny. Your contract should establish her annual wage and also outline expected annual pay increases, so there is no room for misunderstanding.

4. You need to cut back your nanny’s hours.

Circumstances change, schedules shift and sometimes you no longer need the same commitment from a nanny that was previously required.

“The most difficult discussion I had was when a family’s children were going to be going to a daycare and my hours were going to be cut, but I wasn’t made aware,” says Abbie Schmidt, a nanny with 10 years of experience. “I just kept hearing talks about all the children going to school and eventually had to bring it up myself, knowing that the hours were never going to add up right.”

Schmidt eventually brought up the matter to the family herself, but by then, damage had already been done to the relationship. That could’ve been avoided with better communication, she says.

“I think the thing to remember is to keep a professional line of communication open at all times between employee and employer,” says Schmidt. “Keeping the work environment a place that’s open for either side to bring up any issues is very important.”

Though some changes in circumstances are unforeseen, a nanny should be made aware that a change could take place as soon as a family knows what’s going to happen.

Pro Tips:

  • Give advance notice of any anticipated schedule changes. When you hire a nanny, you become an employer. That means, everything you would expect from an employer, you should expect from yourself, including sufficient notice — if you can, 30 days — of schedule changes.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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