Nanny Leaves Kids in Lurch

A mother describes the aberrant/regressive behavior her kids are displaying in the wake of their nanny leaving.
My nanny of three years left suddenly and without saying goodbye to our two boys, ages three and six. Everything was surprising and sudden. The saving grace was that we were expecting her to leave three months later than she actually did, so the kids already knew that a change would be coming up. Their father is now a full-time dad, three months earlier than planned.

Our three-year-old seems fine. Our six-year-old, who has a problem with transitions and handling too much information at one time, has had a bad reaction. He has gone completely out of control - running around the house acting like a monkey at bedtime, having huge fits, kicking, hitting, punching, and generally being belligerent and difficult. It seems as though he wants to see what will happen if he acts horribly.

Our response has been to remain as calm as possible, and continuing to set and work within established limits, while communicating with words, pictures and writing. It has been very trying.

Part of the problem seems to be jealousy over his brother being home in the day, with dad, while he is at school. Other parts seem to be the sudden change, the change of caretaker and hence new limits. It almost seems like he is seeking out negative versus positive attention.

Any thoughts on how best to handle such a thing? How long does aberrant/regressive behavior typically last before things calm down again?


Your knowledge of your son and your analysis of his behavior show me you have a keen understanding of this situation. Your six-year-old is overwhelmed, angry, jealous, confused, and afraid. He is showing you his anger and his need for attention through his misbehavior. He also establishes a certain "control" and predictable routine in his new situation by acting out and getting you to respond. This is his "transitional stability" until he can accommodate to a new stable, daily routine.

I would suggest that you show him you understand his dilemma by naming his "pain." You can have talks with him (planned at calm times) that let him know you understand all the emotions he's feeling (name these emotions) and how difficult it has been for him to cope with them. You're not blaming him for these feelings, you're just letting him know you're aware what he's going through.

Find opportunities to offer him encouragement for any positive behaviors he exhibits (you may have to be creative in finding praiseworthy acts for a while). It may also be helpful for your husband to establish a regular weekly special time alone with your elder son. This could help offset his jealousy of his brother's daily time alone with dad. These special times alone would also place dad in a position other than "new nanny". Put up a picture of dad and him together on the calendar day of the week they have their special times. Have your husband talk about how he's looking forward to these times.

I would also recommend replicating, if possible, those parts of his former nanny environment that he found most pleasurable and comforting; it may help to maintain some stability.

His regression/aggression will subside as he loses his fears, confusion and anger regarding his new routine. Good luck to you all.

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

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