What is vulnerability?

Sometimes, personal, family or community circumstances or circumstances related to social and economic systems might put the wellbeing of families and children under pressure.

We call these circumstances ‘vulnerabilities’. It means that something about the child, parent, family, community or system is creating a risk of poor physical or mental health.

Examples of circumstances that might lead to vulnerability are poverty, single parenting, unemployment, relationship problems, illness, frequent family relocation, family violence, alcohol and other drug use, racism and other forms of discrimination, and social isolation.

Most families are vulnerable at some stage, and some vulnerabilities can have long-term effects. For example, emotional and behavioural difficulties early in life can create risk for problems in adolescence and adulthood. These problems include poor academic performance, relationship problems and crime.

Being exposed to risk doesn’t always lead to poor outcomes. Secure and loving relationships are a key buffer against vulnerability. If you can help parents develop these loving relationships with their children, it can greatly lessen children’s risk of vulnerability. This help might be emotional and practical support, employment opportunities, family-friendly community activities and other family services.

Helping families with vulnerabilities

All families are different and unique, and what works for one might not work for another. Help for families needs to be tailored to individual family circumstances and it needs to be developed in partnership with parents. This is called a family-centred approach.

Using this kind of approach, you can:

  • create a safe environment where families learn to trust you
  • 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 accurate advice and information in a sensitive way
  • support families during times of change.

Respectful and effective communication is essential to understanding individual family circumstances and fostering partnerships.

Reaching families with vulnerabilities

Families with vulnerabilities are often under financial or time pressures. That can mean they might not be able to access services, or 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.

And families with vulnerabilities sometimes might not seek help because they feel intimidated, or they might worry that people will think they can’t cope.

Here are some suggestions for ways to reach out to families:

  • Ensure your service makes all families feel safe and comfortable. For example, have a staff person who can welcome parents when they arrive for an appointment.
  • Be efficient with time. Adjusting your schedule to suit parent availability, and being prepared when you connect, can make it easier for time-pressured families.
  • Be flexible in the way you communicate with parents. For example, use the phone, emails, newsletters and face-to-face meetings.
  • Provide resources that are accessible and parent friendly. For example, are the resources available in the languages that parents in your program can read?
  • If parents are separated, look for ways to communicate with both parents, and negotiate this with both parents if possible.
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.

Working with families with vulnerabilities

When you’re working with families with vulnerabilities, it’s important to focus on family strengths and have positive contact with parents, and not just communicate when there’s a problem. For example, it’s great if you can make a phone call or get in touch when something goes well for the family.

Once you’ve built up good relationships with families, it’s much easier to raise and resolve difficulties.

A focus on shared goals will help you and parents work in partnership to tackle problems. For example, your shared goal might be ensuring a child’s health, safety or wellbeing. It can also help if you express confidence that together you and the parents can find a solution.

A simple problem-solving approach can help you work in partnership with parents too. Here’s how to use this approach:

  • Clarify the situation or issue, or parents’ concern.
  • Ask parents what they’ve already done to try to solve the issue, what has worked, what hasn’t and what got in the way. This way you’ll get the benefits of parents’ experiences, and parents will feel that you respect and value what they’ve been doing.
  • Brainstorm possible solutions, encouraging everyone to come up with potential solutions.
  • Together work out the pros and cons of all the solutions you’ve come up with.
  • Together decide upon the best solution.
  • Discuss what parents might need in order to try out the solution – for example, tip sheets, phone numbers for community agencies or telephone helplines.
  • Regularly review progress towards solving the problem. This means making a time to meet, either on the phone or in person, to discuss how things are going.
Doing something early when there’s a problem can help prevent more problems later on. For example, helping parents use positive parenting strategies can reduce the risk of children having behaviour problems in later life.

Providing accurate and sensitive advice and information

Sometimes you can help families just by providing them with accurate information in a sensitive way.

These tips can help when parents ask you for information or advice:

  • Reassure parents that it’s OK to seek help.
  • Make sure that any information you offer is accurate.
  • Be honest about the limitations of your role and don’t feel that you must know the answers. Help where you can, and refer the parent to someone or somewhere else when you can’t.
  • Build your awareness of community networks so you know 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.