Helping parents understand safety
Most parents do not want to cause harm to their children.
Parents with problematic alcohol and other drugs (AOD) use often do not connect their AOD use with direct harm to their child. You need to help them connect their problematic use to the behaviour that makes you worried for their child’s safety.
Here are some conversation ideas to use when helping a parent connect their AOD use with your worries about their child’s safety:
- You say that it calms you down and makes your mind stop. A lot of parents have also told me it makes them really drowsy. Do you ever feel like that?
- I’m worried that when you get drowsy you might fall asleep while you’re feeding [child’s name]. When this happens, babies can fall between sheets, be smothered and suffocate. Benzos [benzodiazepines, such as Valium, Serepax, Xanax and Temazepam] can make you feel so drowsy and heavy you may fall into a deep sleep unexpectedly. Do you ever worry about that?
- When you take [child’s name] with you to score, it means that they are around other people that use. Some people were worried that they have picked up and played with needles at these times. Tell me about the last time they went with you. What did they see and hear?
- I’m worried for [child’s name] when you drink, particularly the times you have passed out. People have seen them by themselves outside the house at these times. What are the things that could happen to them while they are out there?
Giving clear messages about AOD use
You have to be very clear with parents about what behaviours are negotiable and non-negotiable. This helps them understand what you are most worried about regarding their child’s safety. Some non-negotiable rules in a safety plan can include the following:
- Under no circumstances should a parent sleep with their baby when they have consumed alcohol, drugs, prescription medications that cause drowsiness, or a combination of these substances (particularly heroin, methadone and cannabis).
These slow down a parent’s ability to react and can make them tired and drowsy. Make sure you see where a baby will sleep and talk about safe sleeping practices. Learn more about safe sleeping in the section on Working with expecting and new parents.
- Methadone doses must be stored safely and must never be used to settle or sedate a child. Ask parents where it is stored and how they settle and soothe their baby when they are distressed. Ask them what they do when their normal soothing techniques do not work.
- Children should not be under the supervision or care of other people with problematic AOD use.
- Needles and drugs need to be disposed of safely so children are not around them.
Ask parents if they know where the local needle exchange is. (Find out before you go.) Ask what drug equipment they use, where they keep this and how they dispose of it after use.
Acknowledging but not condoning alcohol and other drugs use
When you are talking with a Mum or Dad during the safety assessment, you will need to discuss ways they can keep their child safe. Recognise that recovering from problematic AOD use takes time. It is unlikely that the parent will stop AOD use then and there because of your visit and your worries about their child.
Good safety plans are based on honest conversations that acknowledge:
- the ways AOD use may be causing a danger for their child
- the likelihood that AOD use will continue (while you work with the parent to explore longer-term treatment and recovery options)
- lapse (a temporary departure from a person’s AOD goals followed by a return to their original goal) and relapse (when a person stops maintaining their goals of reducing or avoiding AOD use and returns to previous levels of AOD use) are a normal part of recovery
- children are to be kept safe during this period.
Talking about ways parents can keep their child safe while they continue to use drugs or alcohol can feel like you are condoning their use.
Here are some examples of conversations that acknowledge but do not condone AOD use:
- I understand that the way you use and how long you’ve been using means it will be really hard for you to just stop using today. I need to be clear that, although we will talk about ways to keep [child’s name] safe and look at what steps you can take today, I am not saying it is okay to keep using. Our work together will be focused on what you need to do to stop using. Today, we are looking at what we can do to keep [child’s name] safe right now.
- I understand what you have been through and why it feels like AOD use has been the only way to cope. We need to work together to find better ways to help you cope in the future so that [child’s name] is always safe. Right now, we need to look at how to make [child’s name] safe today. This may mean we need to create an immediate safety plan for how they will be safe over the next few days.
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