By Raising Children Network
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sad school boy sitting on floor with head in his hands credit St-Onge
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 might 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 might 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 and crime – in adolescence and adulthood.

Having a characteristic of risk doesn’t necessarily lead to vulnerability. For example, the child of a single mother doesn’t 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 doesn’t mean that child’s health or development will suffer. Some vulnerabilities are brief, and 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 the family plenty of opportunities to explain things in their own words
  • offering support that reflects the parents’ situation – the same approach might not be appropriate for different families
  • using a range of services and offering different ways for the family to access them, so that the family can discuss and learn about the strategies will help most.

Working with vulnerable families

By working in collaboration with families, you can:

  • help families who are experiencing vulnerability and reduce risk to children
  • reach 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 several things you can do to help families who are experiencing difficult or vulnerable circumstances. Doing something early can reduce any negative effects. For example:

  • 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 behaviour and emotional problems in children, and increase their social competence.
Many families don’t 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 with vulnerabilities

Here are some general tips:
  • 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 a situation or reduce problems.

Reaching hard-to-reach families

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 might 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 or program, and make an agreement with parents about how best to communicate – phone, newsletter and regular meetings are some ideas.  
  • Develop strategies for communicating with non-resident parents, by negotiating this with both parents. 
  • Ensure your service is flexible enough to meet 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 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 parents will find it much easier to raise and resolve difficulties.

If you see a difficulty
Here are some tips for handling problems or difficulties:

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

Putting 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 the resources available in the languages that parents in your program can read?

It isn’t 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.

Providing accurate advice and information in a sensitive way

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

    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 might be available through your management committees, coordinators or local services (including school support staff and 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.

    Supporting families to change situations or reduce problems

    • Clarify the situation or issue, or parents’ concern. 
    • Ask parents 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 everyone to come up with potential solutions.
    • Together work out the pros and cons of each solution. 
    • Together decide upon the best solution.
    • Discuss what parents might need in order to try out the solution – for example, tipsheets, phone numbers for community agencies or telephone helplines, or ways for staff and parents to try out a new strategy to manage a problem.
    • Regularly review progress towards solving the problem.
    • Last updated or reviewed 23-05-2014