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Hearing the voices of children

There are several ways to support the development of positive relationships when working with children impacted by parental alcohol and other drugs use:

  • Create an environment in which children trust you and feel comfortable and safe.
  • Engage with children in an honest, credible and genuine manner and avoid secrecy.
  • Ensure you communicate in a manner appropriate to the child's age and development.
  • Offer children choices about the things that affect them and invite them to tell you how they would like to share their story.
  • Be objective and curious about their experiences.
  • Try to provide children with hope for the future and looks for acts of protection—do not just focus solely on risk.
  • Follow up your words with actions. Letting children down can be very damaging to your relationship.

‘They talk to the parent ... They'd be more helpful if they listened to what the kids had to say, because this kind of stuff really affects them badly, because they're young and because they don't understand. They pretty much go, "Holy crap, my whole life is falling apart. What do I do?"’

Young man, age 17

(Who Cares- Moore, Noble Carr, McArthur 2010

Techniques to connect with children

Effective techniques to use when working with children whose parents use alcohol and other drugs are as follows:

  • Providing opportunities to draw—inviting children to draw a family tree is a good way for them to talk about their family and can be a springboard to discuss their relationship with other family members.
  • Using the The Three Houses Tool is a good way to help children to talk about what makes them feel safe or unsafe and about their dreams and hopes for the future. Getting a child’s permission to share this with their parents can act as a motivator for change. Many children feel unable to express their thoughts and feelings directly to their parents, and this process enables them to put their experience, fears, hopes and dreams into writing. The result can be a confronting but potentially transformative experience for the parent as they hear about their child’s experience.
  • Using the The Safety House Tool is a way for a practitioner to talk with a child about safety and danger and for a child to talk about what needs to happen for them to be safe and the people who can provide the safety. It also identifies the rules that need to be in place so the child feels they are safe in the care of their families.   
  • Developing family life books—Children whose parents have problematic alcohol and other drugs use often experience very disrupted lives. Family life books, in which mementos such as notes, photos, letters and drawings can be stored, can be an important repository for children’s memories. Consider whether kicbox is an option.
  • Using safety and support networks, which involves identifying individuals with a connection to the child and helping them to contribute to creating an extended network of support. The group can include extended family members, friends and other adults such as teachers who show a connection with the child. Offer support to develop these networks and to ensure they have the skills to maintain the connection without organisational support.
  • Using the Circles of Safety and Support Tool.
  • Using family activities (camps and school holiday programs)—Families in which parental alcohol and other drugs use is an issue may not have the financial resources to participate in family activities. Referrals to these sorts of programs can be a way of encouraging positive engagement between children and their parents and can contribute to the vital strengthening of the parent-child relationship.

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