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Talking with children

Talking with children and young people to assess safety

Children whose parents have problematic alcohol and other drugs (AOD) use are in danger of direct and indirect harm.

The following table shows three topics that can be used to help you think about the different harm and worries that may exist, and what you may need to explore with the child.

Topic Question ideas
Parenting

Is the child:

  • in the car when Mum or Dad is driving under the influence?
  • sharing the same bed with Mum or Dad after they drink alcohol or use drugs?
  • being physically hurt by anyone when Mum or Dad are affected by alcohol or drugs?
  • being left unsupervised?
  • being protected from people and things that might hurt them?

Practices and paraphernalia

Is the child:

  • able to access, play with and use drug paraphernalia in the home?
  • seeing drugs being cooked, injected, snorted or smoked?
  • seeing, smelling or a part of drug manufacturing or drug dealing?

Places and people

Is the child:

  • around people who drink or use drugs?
  • looked after by people affected by AOD when Mum or Dad are using?
  • around people who may hurt them?
  • going to unsafe places with Mum and Dad to buy drugs?
  • going to unsafe places with Mum and Dad so they can make money to buy drugs (for example, sex work or criminal activity)?
  • doing unsafe and illegal things with Mum and Dad so they can make money for drugs (such as criminal activity)?

 

Why it is hard for children to talk

Most children want their parents to stop drinking and using drugs. And even though you are trying to help them, children may feel scared, worried or apprehensive about talking to you because they:

  • don’t want their parents to get in trouble for talking to you
  • don’t want to betray their family by letting others know what is going on
  • are worried of getting in trouble
  • are worried about bigger things and don’t see AOD as the main problem
  • are worried they are the reason their parent drinks or uses, and that you will blame them too
  • may be scared you are going to take them away from their parents and from all of the things that are familiar to them.

When a child does not tell you or open up about their parent’s AOD use, it does not mean it is not happening. Naming what you are worried about may help the child understand that you know some of what is happening. This may make it easier for them to tell you more.

Do not shy away from naming your worry out of fear of leading the interview or contaminating evidence. Your role first and foremost is to assess the child’s safety and understand the ways AOD can make a child unsafe.

Conversation ideas

Whether it is the first time you are meeting a family or you are reviewing an immediate safety plan, the following conversation ideas may be helpful.

Topic/question Conversation ideas

Naming the worry

  • Some people are worried about your Mum or Dad drinking too much alcohol —what can you tell me about that?
  • I’m wondering what you know about alcohol and drugs.
  • Who do you know who uses drugs or alcohol, and what have you seen them do?
  • I was told that sometimes you are left home alone at night. When was the last time that happened? Tell me more about that.

Gaining an understanding of what it is like for the child

When Mum or Dad is using, what do you do?

  • What do you see?
  • Who else is there?
  • What have you seen, smelled or felt at these times?
  • What do you do when it is happening?

Who is looking after you:

  • when this is happening?
  • when they buy it?
  • when they use it?

How does it make you feel when Mum or Dad uses drugs?

  • What worries you most about it?
  • On a scale of 0 to 10, how safe do you feel?
  • What makes you feel safe?
  • What makes you feel unsafe?
  • Tell me more about this.

What do you notice about Mum or Dad when they drink and when they’re not drinking?

  • What do you do when these things happen?
  • How do you know when Mum or Dad has used?
  • What do you expect will happen?
  • What do you do?

Indirect questions

  • Tell me about your day. What happens when you wake up?
  • What happens at breakfast time?
  • Where's Mum when you're having breakfast? And Dad?
  • Tell me about getting ready for school.
  • What do you have for lunch at school?
  • When do you do your homework?
  • Do you sometimes bring friends home after school?

Other worries

  • Who do you go to when you need comfort or help?
  • Who do you go to when you need protection?
  • What makes you scared?
  • When do you feel afraid?
  • How do you help your little brother and sister?
  • What would you like to change?
  • What would you like to stay the same?
  • What are your hopes?

 

Further reading

For more information, go to the Raising Children Australian website—Parenting and problematic alcohol and other drug use.

Reassuring children

Remember that your role is much greater than simply gathering information from a child to determine their safety. Every interaction you have with them is an opportunity for healing. You can also help ease the burden, fear and sense of responsibility that many children experience by growing up in homes where their parent’s AOD use is problematic.

During your time with a child:

  • Let them know that it is not their job to control or stop their parent from using.
  • Assure them that they are not to blame for their parent’s use.
  • Give them information that helps them understand their parent’s dependence, behaviours and thoughts.
  • Be clear about what is okay and what is not okay about their safety and what they can do.

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