By Raising Children Network
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Families with vulnerabilities or special needs can benefit greatly from professional support, especially when it’s coupled with a good understanding of their situation.

What is vulnerability?

Sometimes, the wellbeing of families and children may be threatened by individual, parental or family circumstances. We call these ‘vulnerabilities’. It means that something about the child, parent or family is creating a risk of poor physical or mental health.

Examples of factors that may lead to vulnerability are poverty, single parenting, unemployment, relationship problems, depression, drug and alcohol use, and social isolation.

Vulnerability and risk

Most families are vulnerable at some stage, and some difficulties can affect children into adulthood. For example, research shows that emotional and behavioural difficulties early in life can be linked to behaviour problems (such as poor academic performance, relationship problems, crime) in adolescence and adulthood.

Having a characteristic of risk does not necessarily lead to vulnerability. For example, the child of a single mother does not necessarily suffer from not having a father. It is difficult to predict why some children are at risk, while other children do well, despite having a characteristic of vulnerability.

Simply having a characteristic of vulnerability does not mean that child’s health or development will suffer. Some vulnerabilities are brief, others are ongoing.

Sometimes, families find it difficult to ‘break the cycle’ of vulnerability, or to get out of a difficult situation.

You can help by:

  • trying to understand where the family is at – give them plenty of opportunities to explain things in their own words
  • offering support that reflects the parents’ situation – the same approach may not be appropriate for different families
  • use a range of services and offer different ways to access them, so that families can discuss and learn about the strategies will help them most.

What you can do

By working in collaboration with families, you can:

  • help families who are experiencing vulnerability and reduce risk to children
  • try reaching out to families who don’t reach out to you 
  • put families in touch with helpful resources
  • give advice and information in a sensitive way
  • support families during times of change.

There are a number of things you can do to help families who are experiencing difficult or vulnerable circumstances. Doing something early can reduce any negative effects. Here are some examples:

  • Helping parents use good parenting strategies can reduce the risk of behaviour problems in later life, even where there are significant behaviour problems in childhood.
  • Strengthening the skills of parents can reduce behavioural and emotional problems in children, and increase their social competence.

Many families do not know how or where to get help. You can be an excellent link between families experiencing difficulties and the help they need.

Ways to help families experiencing vulnerability

  • Reach out to hard-to-reach families.
  • Put families in touch with the resources they need.
  • Provide accurate advice and information in a sensitive way.
  • Support the family to change or to reduce the vulnerability.

Families that are vulnerable are often under financial or time pressures. That can mean they don’t have the time or money to use services, so you may not see them very often. Even if they do use your service, it can be difficult to make connections with families because everyone is so busy.

Here are some suggestions for ways of communicating with families who are hard to reach.

  • Be flexible in your methods of communicating; find a variety of ways for parents to keep in touch.
  • Discuss options for communication at the start of the year/program, and make an agreement with parents about how best to communicate (phone, newsletter and regular meetings are some suggestions).  
  • Develop strategies for communicating with non-resident parents, by negotiating this with both parents. 
  • Ensure your service is flexible to the needs of all families. For example, is there a staff person available to talk to parents when they arrive? 
  • Ask parents if they want help.

To help reach all families, it is important to have positive contacts with parents, and not just communicate with them when there is a problem.

Think of episodes of positive communication as money going into a bank: you can only ‘withdraw’ (that is, talk about problems) once you have built up a wealth of positive communications. In this way, you and the parent will find it much easier to raise and resolve difficulties.

Things to think about if you see a difficulty

  • You don’t have to solve the problem for them. Sometimes all you need to do to help is listen.  Look for the strengths in the family; for example, that a parent wants what is best for their child.  
  • Look for common ground, such as your shared concern for the child’s wellbeing. Think about what other factors might add to the problem. Can you minimise these? For example, reducing fees temporarily.
  • Parents of children who display difficult behaviour at home may already feel inadequate and overwhelmed. Parents might be using your service for respite from these behaviours and hearing from you about misbehaviour at school may not help them. If you do have to communicate a problem, also be prepared to offer possible solutions. 
  • Consult the parent on what they feel would be the best course of action when problems arise. This way they will feel respected and valued. Parents may have tested a solution at home already. Acknowledge their experience and focus on trying a solution together.

Put families in touch with the resources they need

Each family is unique, with a different combination of characteristics. Treat each family as special and important. Provide resources that are accessible and useable. For example, are they available in the languages that parents in your program can read? It is not always possible to solve a problem or answer the parent’s questions on your own. Helping families can be a complex task. Try not to feel that you must have all the answers.

Provide accurate advice and information in a sensitive way

Sometimes you may be able to provide families with information that helps them through difficulties. Where you have such information, communicate it to the parent in a sensitive way, remembering to work in partnership with the parent.

  • Clarify the issue, or the parent’s concern. 
  • Ask the parent what they have already done to try to solve the issue, what has worked, what hasn’t, what got in the way. Recognise previous attempts they have made to solve the problem.
  • Brainstorm possible solutions, encouraging both of you to come up with potential solutions.
  • Together, work out the pros and cons of each solution. 
  • Together, decide upon the best solution.
  • Discuss what the parent might need in order to try out the solution (for example, tip sheets, phone number for a community agency or telephone help line, for the staff and parent to try out a new strategy to manage a problem).
  • Regularly review progress towards solving the problem.

When parents ask you for help or advice

  • Explain that it is normal to seek help. 
  • If you have information to offer parents (either verbally or written), make sure it is accurate.
  • Be honest about the limitations of your role. If you can’t help them with accurate advice, don’t feel that you must know the answers. Communicate what you have, and refer the parent on to someone or somewhere else. 
  • Be aware of who or where you can refer parents. Create a library of up-to-date resources for staff and parents, and make these easily accessible to parents.
  • Additional information about child and family issues may be available through your management committees, coordinators, or local services (including school support staff and the Regional Parenting Services).
  • Have an environment that is welcoming and family friendly and offers parents easy access to the family and parenting resources available in their community.
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  • Last Reviewed 15-05-2006
  • Outside School Hours Care (OSHC) Resource, Department of Human Services
    Early Childhood Australia