Managing The Tricky Parent-Child-Helper Triangle

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How to manage the relationship between parents, children and helpers

Helpers are an integral part of Hong Kong family life. Nearly a third of Hong Kong families with children employ one of the 352,000 foreign domestic helpers in the city. Required by law to live in their employer’s residence, helpers spend hours a day with children and have a huge impact shaping both Hong Kong children and families. We spoke to parenting expert from Gordon Parenting, Catherine Banson, on how to best navigate the parent-child-helper triangle.


1. When interviewing helpers to look after your family, are there certain questions to ask or issues to raise to help find a helper that fits your family?

Taking a needs-based approach will lead to the best fit. Talk with your co-parent about your own, his or hers and those of your child and tailor your questions accordingly.


For instance, you and your co-parent have needs that include support, ease and rest. Find out what that means to each of you; perhaps you want someone experienced with infants so you can really relax while your partner wants a break from cooking. Even if the interviewee lacks the skills now, what is her reading level or openness to learning, say, about the stages of childhood? If one of you needs independence and privacy, you may ask the interviewee or her former employer how talkative or extroverted she is.

2. What kind of rules should children have for how they treat their helper? Who should enforce these rules?

Values like respect and compassion will most powerfully be passed through modeling. If you hope that your child speaks to your helper in (developmentally appropriate) moderate tones, try to manage the way you speak as well.


If you don’t like your child’s treatment of the helper first try to focus on what is underlying the behavior, instead of reaching for a consequence to “enforce” the rule. Tap into your empathy by asking yourself “What must my child be feeling and needing to behave this way?” Active Listen her, e.g. “Something has upset you very much! You didn’t like it when Carmen did that and now you’re so frustrated!”

Reconnecting this way and trying to meet underlying needs (maybe she was feeling jealous and needed fairness or attention) will help your child deflood emotionally. She may even surprise you and say sorry on her own! If she doesn’t, she will still feel more open as you later share why you disagree with her behavior and help her practice alternatives: “Honey, if you scream at Ayi, she may not want to help you find the other toy! You can say to Ayi ‘I’m sad. I don’t want this toy. I miss my other toy.’”


You can show your helper that you are serious about respect and her feelings by saying (within your child’s earshot) — “That was hard for you to hear! Thank you for understanding that Kira was just so frustrated. She’s working on using words and I’m helping her.”

3. Discipline is obviously a big concern for parents. Do you suggest parents and helpers take the same approach to discipline?

If you and your helper can become more solution-focused (meeting needs driving behavior) there will be less incentive to discipline (which is often another word for punishment). Meeting needs is actually the most effective way of getting behavioral change.


Share with your helper the detective question: “What must he be feeling and needing to be behaving this way?” and then help the child to meet those needs. You can always coach on appropriate things to do or say later.


Behaviors that we call “misbehavior,” “rude,” “willfully disobedient,” or “defiant” often arise from disconnection. Kids want to comply with adults and will do so if they are warmly attached to us! As prevention, carve out special time with each of your kids and give your helper time to play and deeply connect with them as well. Smooth relationships are based on connection, so this is time well spent!

4. What kind of rules should you have for how helpers treat your children? Should they be the same as the rules parents apply to their own parenting?

In my courses, most parents believe that consistent treatment from all adults in the household is best for the child. Thomas Gordon, the founder of P.E.T., says, however, that a “united front” is not necessary; children are able to deal with differences.


For instance, your child understands that Mommy is not a morning person but Ayi is, or that Daddy will roughhouse and can tolerate a lot of stimuli (iPad, TV, dog, cat, legos on floor) but that the other adults can’t.


Consider allowing your helper to make up certain of her own rules when she is with the kids. She can say: “I’m ok with you having three games out at once, but your parents are not. They’re coming home soon and I care about them so let’s get this place cleaned up.” She is modeling honesty as well as caring for Mom and Dad.


On the more serious side, what if your helper is using threats (“If you don’t bring your stuff from your PE bag, I’m not going to wash it”), punishments (silent treatment) or bribes (“It’s ok, enough crying. I can get you some ice cream!”)?


Talk to her. It’s likely that, given her upbringing, she can’t imagine any other responses. Tuning in to her first will make her more open when you explain you want to develop the child’s self-control by listening and reasoning with him rather than relying on external motivators. (If you’re working on this yourself and occasionally slip back into the old ways — see question #5.)


If certain behaviors are absolutely below your line of acceptance, as the employer you have the right to enforce your rules. The more you are able to listen and share openly with your helper, the more you will influence her ability to self-regulate and grow as an effective carer for your child.

5. As parents with a lot on our plates, it can be challenging to be consistent with our parenting approach. This can be difficult for helpers trying to take cues from our behavior. How can parents manage this confusion?

Gosh, this is hard! Just as your children are watching you, so is your helper. No matter how much you stipulate that she is not to yell at or spank your children, she might be less self-restrained if she witnesses you losing your cool regularly.


What to do if you run out of self-control? Try being transparent with your helper. “It’s really important for me to try to stop screaming. I’m working hard and I often mess up. It’s taking baby steps and I’ve even started meditating for 2 minutes every morning. When I do yell, please understand that I don’t think it’s ok; it’s just that I’m having a hard time. Thanks and I’ll try to give support when you make the same mistake.”

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6. Forming secure attachments to the people they spend time with is important aspect of a child’s development. Should there be a differentiation between the attachment helpers and parents have?

If you keep your eyes on the prize — the long term goal of a securely attached, happy, thriving individual — that may incentivize you to increase your child’s closeness to whomever is caring for them.


It can be hard though. One working mom felt so pained watching the closeness between her child and helper that she banned hugging and kissing between them. Then she was down on herself for feeling “petty,” “jealous” and “insecure.”


If that’s you, give yourself lots of compassion! You clearly care deeply about your relationship with your child; it’s just not where you want it to be yet! Find a friend or counselor you can express your difficult feelings to; this can lead to you taking a wider perspective. Instead of resenting your helper and succumbing to feelings of “this is a competition!” you can focus on building your relationship with your little one.

7. Personal situations for both families and helpers can change and sometimes a change in helper may be required. For many children, this may be a challenging experience. Are there any things to look out for or advice to parents going through such a transition?

The departure of a helper can lead to feelings of heartbreak or abandonment, perhaps presenting as anger towards you. Assist in her emotional regulation by naming your child’s feelings — “You’re confused as to why Ayi had to leave so suddenly and your heart hurts.” If you decide to share why your helper left, your child can now better understand.


This empathy helps maintain peace and closeness! Simply launching into the justifications for the departure or assuring the child that she will love her new helper does not address the sad or lonely feelings head-on. Unprocessed emotions don’t disappear; instead, they go underground and pop up later in difficult behaviors.


As with any relationship, the parent-helper-child triangle is always changing and requires open lines of communication to maintain a healthy rapport. Best of luck to your family!

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This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and is not sponsored. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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