It all started one Saturday morning, when Livia Chong was playing with her 20-month-old daughter, Jeannie, at home.
On noticing that her little girl had soiled her diapers, the full-time working mum got up to change her. “I asked her to lie down on the changing mat, but she screamed for our domestic helper, Ana,” Livia recalls.
As much as she tried, Jeannie refused to allow Livia to change her, and only wanted Ana to do so. “I felt embarrassed and rejected. I was also angry — after all, I didn’t have a lot of time to spend with her, so why didn’t she let me do a simple thing like change her diaper?” Livia says.
Livia also started to feel jealous of her domestic helper. “I would wonder, what is she doing more than me? Is she spoiling her when I’m not around?” It got to a point where Livia even thought about quitting her job, or getting her in-laws to come round more often, so that Jeannie would spend less time with Ana.
Deep down, however, Livia knows she is lucky that Jeannie likes Ana, which means that her helper is doing a great job of caring for her daughter.
“I didn’t have a lot of time to spend with her, so why didn’t she let me do a simple thing like change her diaper?”
“It was a part of me that had to let go. But it was also a wake-up call to me, to create my own special bonds with Jeannie, and not leave everything to Ana,” says Livia.
Such situations, where a child prefers a caregiver to the parent, are not uncommon, says Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre. The caregiver may be the domestic helper, the part-time nanny, or the grandparent.
“They are responsible for providing the child’s basic needs. They spend time together, so it is natural for the child to be much more familiar with their routine and styles of doing things,” Koh explains. In these cases, the parent may play the secondary role.
Some parents may feel angry with the child and themselves, guilty, stressed, jealous, or anxious, he says. “The parents see what they are unable to do, or watching someone else take over their role.”
But Koh adds that caring for a child should be done as a team, instead of competing to see who is more influential, as “the child needs each caregiver at different times”.
We have several ways to help you cope if you are fretting about how your child is bonding with his caregiver.
1. Respect family time
Even if life feels that much harder when your domestic helper isn’t around, put aside time where it’s just you and your family. It could be every evening after dinner — let your helper know that she can have her own time once you get home from work, for instance. You don’t need to bring your helper along for every meal you go out to, just so that she can help feed junior. If possible, schedule a short holiday without your helper, so that you can bond with your child and take care of his needs exclusively.
2. Talk to your caregiver
You know how toddlers are — they often assert their independence by acting a certain way, or wanting things to be done their way. Instead of taking the bull by the horns and trying to put your child in his place, find out how your caregiver deals with these situations. Says Ho Shan Si, mum to Kai Ren, 2, “Kai would make a big issue about putting on his shoes whenever it’s time to go out. I learnt from my helper that he likes to drag out his mini-cushion and sit on it, so that she could put on his shoes for him. It’s a simple trick that worked like magic.”
It’s also crucial that your child develops emotional attachments with other adults in his early years.
3. Be gentle with transitions
If getting junior to leave his caregiver’s home is a daily battle, don’t make it worse by rushing him to leave. Let him say his goodbyes with a hug, and ask him about the wonderful day he spent with his grandma, or nanny. Acknowledge that he may be sad to leave now, but remind him that when you get home you can do other fun things like cuddling in bed with a book.
4. Realise that it is good for your child
Indeed, it’s wonderful to know that your child needs you. But it’s also crucial that your child develops emotional attachments with other adults in his early years. It is completely normal for him to form connections with his grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, the domestic helper or the nanny. These connections and the skills to build them are essential to how he forms all his future relationships and how he feels comfortable in social situations.
You can build a more secure attachment with your child in order to develop a stronger relationship with him.
Attachment, the close, emotional bond of affection between a baby and his caregiver, is what makes your child feel secure with his caregiver.
When your child has a secure attachment, he knows that he can go to this special adult —whether it’s you or another caregiver — to be comforted when he is frustrated, overwhelmed, or upset.
Behaviourists had previously suggested that it was food that led to forming early secure attachments. But British psychologist John Bowlby, among others, demonstrated that it was nurturance and responsiveness that are the primary determinants of how attached a child is to a particular adult.
A sign of a secure attachment in babies and young children includes being comfortable in your presence, coming to you when they are hurt, and being agreeable to requests without much resistance.
When your child has a secure attachment, he knows that he can go to this special adult — whether it’s you or another caregiver — to be comforted when he is frustrated, overwhelmed, or upset.
So, here are some things you can do to in order to build a secure attachment to your child, from the time he is an infant.
· Make sense of your baby’s cries Understand that your child is crying for a reason — whether it’s for a diaper change, to be fed, or simply to be comforted. Find out why your baby is crying and whether it’s a cry for attention and comfort. Remember that it’s impossible to spoil your baby by tending to his needs.
· Be responsive It’s not just babies who need you to be responsive to them. Toddlers and older children, too, need that attention. If your child smiles at you, smile back. Make eye contact when you talk. Follow his lead when he asks you to play with him.
· Smile and touch to show affection Even if you’ve been stressed at work, come home with a smile on your face to show junior that you’re happy to see him. Hugs, cuddles and kisses are always welcome — physical affection can trigger the release of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, and can lower the effects of the stress hormone.
· Be available Whether it’s to build a fort out of blocks, or to get him that slice of apple from the kitchen counter, be there for your child. Be mentally engaged and attentive to him. This may mean making lifestyle choices, like getting off your mobile phone.
· Enjoy your child If you find that you are lacking in an attachment to your child, start by simply enjoy your child as a person. Treasure the time you have (especially if you’re a working mum). Learn about his likes and dislikes, what types of books he likes to read, and why he hates strawberries or broccoli. You’ll discover that there’s so much to learn about this little person and he’ll grow to trust and be secure in your affection for him.
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