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Respectful and curious engagement

Every parent is a person in their own right. Every parent has things they hold close, value and want for their life.

Social justice, ethical practice and the Framework for Practice principles guide our work with parents with a focus on being fair, curious and respectful. This means seeing and talking with them in ways that make them feel they are more than the negative labels, assumptions and stereotypes. Every parent has their own unique story.

Use respectful and curious engagement, which means:

  • taking the time to listen and really hear their story—understanding past or current pain and suffering, and helping them reveal their strengths and resilience
  • wanting to know about who they are, how alcohol and other drugs use has taken hold of their life, and how you can help them overcome their problematic use and create safety for their child
  • helping them find choices and have self-determination in pathways for treatment and recovery
  • making sure everything you ask a parent to do has meaning and purpose (for example, don’t ask parents to do drug screens for the sake of it)
  • recognising errors in practice, ways that power and/or privilege have been misused or been oppressive, and responding to this, reflecting on it and repairing it
  • advocating on their behalf, making sure they are not held back, oppressed, disadvantaged or shamed in your, your colleagues’ or other professionals’ practice.

Stigma and shame matter

Stigma and shame are some of the biggest barriers for families dealing with problematic alcohol and other drugs use. They can stop a parent and their child from opening up and talking about how alcohol and other drugs affects their lives, and can stop parents who need treatment and support from accessing or staying in treatment and recovery. Helping the parent focus on their health and sobriety, rather than dwelling on feelings of shame, is important.

The stigma and shame a parent feels during recovery can also take its emotional toll. Help them overcome this so it does not take control and derail their recovery. Connect them with support groups of other parents who have walked the same path to recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous Australia, Narcotics Anonymous Australia and SMART Recovery all have excellent resources for parents.

In following video by the New South Wales Users and Aids Association (NUAA), health professionals and people with problematic alcohol and other drugs use discuss how stigma and discrimination impacts on access to health services and day-to-day life.

New South Wales Users and Aids Association (NUAA) - Stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs illicitly

Stigma can affect a parent with problematic alcohol and other drugs use, as the parent:

  • is less likely to seek help or treatment
  • may experience high discrimination and feel abandoned, rejected or ashamed
  • is more likely to quit treatment due to stigma and shame.

Stigma can influence how practitioners and other professionals see the parent with problematic alcohol and other drugs use. Parents may:

  • be held in poorer regard compared to other parents
  • be seen as not motivated
  • not get enough professional or quality time because of avoidance
  • have limited opportunity to recover because of the belief they can’t change or are hopeless.

'Body language tells me they’ve already judged me before the session has even started.'

(AOD Provider Collaborative, 2014)

Guilt, remorse and shame are very raw emotions during the early recovery stage and can be gnawing, harmful and all-consuming emotions that creep into every aspect of family life. Once a parent has started to come down and intoxication wears off, they feel the shame, guilt and remorse and the heavy realisation that they are accountable for what has happened. These overwhelming feelings can be a trigger to use again.

This following three part video series produced by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation attempts to reduce the negativity, misunderstanding, stigma and shame surrounding problematic alcohol and other drugs use.

Alcohol and drug foundation- Breaking the ice in our community: Jay Morris' story

Alcohol and drug foundation- Debbie Warner: A mother struggling with her children’s problematic alcohol and other drugs use

Alcohol and drug foundation- Dr Suzie Hudson: Clinical Director at the Network of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies (NADA)

Reducing stigma and shame: Recognise, understand and appreciate difference

The shame and blame parents feel from their family, support networks, community and society can create self-doubt, feelings of defeat and hopelessness about change. Parents are likely to feel like you are also judging them just by the role you hold, even if you are practising with dignity and respect. What should you do?

Acknowledge it. It is helpful to acknowledge and talk with parents about how they feel about your role and that of others working with them, and how you can make things easier. Let parents know that you understand how complex their situation is. This is not condoning the problematic use but acknowledging their feelings, experiences and the struggle.

Use words that reduce it. The language you use when talking about a parent’s problematic alcohol or other drug use matters. Seeing a parent simply as a drug user without understanding the context means that your assessment and case planning may miss the issue that needs the most attention.

Reduce it from others. Vulnerable children need you to challenge any negative opinions from family and from professionals about the parent’s problematic use and the myths of dependence. This can help the family move forward and give parents hope that change is possible.

You should also:

  • recognise that dependence on alcohol or other drugs is a treatable disorder
  • learn about the unique story and experience each family has of their struggle with problematic alcohol and other drugs use
  • think about the words you use with children, parents, professionals and the community- Are they reducing or perpetuating stigma and shame?
  • help others reframe language and views that perpetuate stigma, bias, and assumptions about problematic alcohol and other drugs use
  • use any opportunity you have to educate, share information, and help others to understand problematic alcohol and other drugs use
  • build your knowledge and expertise about problematic alcohol and other drugs use
  • consider how your own beliefs, values and attitudes may contribute to stigma and shame.

Source: AOD Provider Collaborative (2014) Reducing stigma towards AOD service users (Final report), NUAA


Reflect on the following questions during individual or group supervision with your senior team leader, senior practitioner or peers:

  • Do you have any negative beliefs, values or attitudes about alcohol and other drugs use?
  • What are the outcomes you have had when working with other families with problematic alcohol and other drugs use?
  • How does this shape the way you see and feel about other families?
  • How have you seen, felt or observed someone’s experience of problematic alcohol and other drugs use in your own life? What does this mean for how you feel and see it now?
  • What expertise and knowledge do you have about parents with problematic alcohol and other drugs use, treatment and recovery? Is there a gap?
  • How does your understanding of the complex issues that surround alcohol and other drugs use—such as childhood trauma, domestic and family violence and mental health—influence your practice?

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