Child Aware Practice

Rationale, definition, philosophy, principles, barriers to practice, practice approach, link to PERCS conversation guides, child sleep issues, children's resilience


This page has three sections:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

Rationale

The parent-child relationship is critical to a child’s wellbeing. When parents experience complex problems, this can have a significant impact on the child. Furthermore, a parent’s wellbeing is affected by the relationship with their child. It can be both a motivating factor and a stressor. Practitioners can influence this relationship positively when they work with the parent. The focus for workers is to not just focus on the adult or adult issues, but to understand how these issues can impact on the child, their parenting role and the parent-child relationship (Emerging Minds, 2015).


Why is a Child-Aware Approach needed? People who are concerned about a child or family usually make a report to a child protection service. However, these services only intervene if there is a significant risk of harm following a single critical incident. Child protection services do not deal with daily lived experiences of children that can involve chronic low-level care with intermittent incidents of low to moderate severity throughout a child’s development. So you can have a child with a number of significant problems and the system doesn’t do anything, because the system is designed so intervention doesn’t occur until a critical incident occurs (Emerging Minds, 2015).


Furthermore, adult-focused services that treat problems of mental health, addiction, homelessness or family violence and their sequelae, have traditionally and understandably started with a focus on identifying the most pressing of the problems that adults present at their door. Faced with that complexity, the needs of children may be neither seen nor heard. In fact, in the hurly burly of busy services, awareness of the extent to which parents’ problems affect children may not be high (Hunter & Price-Robertson, 2014).


Abuse and neglect can cause major difficulties for children, such as:

  • developmental delays

  • difficulty forming relationships

  • physical health problems

  • educational difficulties

  • serious life-long mental health problems.

The effects of abuse and neglect can last a lifetime and have been associated with:

  • suicide

  • eating disorders

  • drug and alcohol abuse

  • high-risk sexual behaviour

  • violence and criminal offending

  • homelessness

  • and, tragically, the abuse and neglect of one’s own children (Emerging Minds, 2015).

What is Child Aware Practice?


Child Aware Practice considers both parenting needs and the needs of children. Practitioners endure that the safety and wellbeing of children are considered in all interventions. Child Aware Practice is about intervening early in the lives of children to see whether the issues impacting on their parents are also impacting on their children in a deleterious manner. For example, binge drinking, family violence, alcohol and other drug misuse, homelessness problems and mental health problems have profound impacts on the developing child: brain development (quite severe), how children control their own behaviour and emotions, physical health, and how they grow up to parent children, and their immediate sense of safety. Therefore it is vital that practitioners both:

  • talk about children as part of their relationship-building process with clients and as they gather background information

  • talk about the parent-child relationship early in the working relationship, as this makes raising concerns or offering support less threatening as the relationship progresses (Emerging Minds, 2015).

Postponing talking about children may place children at risk if their needs are not considered. It may also mean parents are not supported in their parenting role. Practitioners can expect that some parents may minimise or underestimate the impact of their problems on their children due to the assumption that children have only a limited awareness of the problem. However, research with children showed children know earlier, and in greater detail, about their parents’ problems than their parents believed (COAG, 2009).


Barriers to Child Aware Practice (Bromfield & Miller, 2012)


Barrier 1: ‘Solving’ immediate material needs will ‘fix’ the situation as far as children are concerned.


It is important to consider families' strengths, weaknesses, needs, challenges, and priorities in a holistic way. Vulnerable families often have multiple and complex needs. It is important to consider how you can support them to address both immediate issues (such as physical safety and shelter), alongside longer-term needs (such as promoting good parenting and enabling change in behaviour away from problems such as drug and alcohol misuse).


Barrier 2: If I have this conversation, parents will shut down for fear of child protection involvement.


Research shows that parents have been very clear about expressing the need to have their parenting role considered. For example, parents with a mental illness may be unwell some of the time but are parents all the time. National and international research shows that:

  • families have strengths that can be built upon to keep children safe and well

  • families may require advice and support, particularly in times of change

  • provision of services early in a child’s life and/or early in the life of a problem can improve long term outcomes for children and reduce negative impacts

  • a focus on early intervention and prevention is more cost-effective in the long term than responding to crises or treating the impacts of abuse and neglect.

Barrier 3: Parents will think I am judging them.


It is important to support parents to meet the care needs of their children by developing a non-judgemental, respectful way of talking with them about the impact of their adult issues on their children. A strengths-based approach allows a collaborative conversation about the strengths, abilities and resources that individuals have that can be built on to strengthen the parent-child relationship and improve the safety and wellbeing of children.


Barrier 4: I don't have the expertise to talk about children.


Parents will often tell you that they want the best for their children. A relationship based on empathy, respect, genuineness, and hope and a willingness to ask them what might help is terrific starting point. It is important to identify what we know and what we can offer. Being able to tap into the expertise of others to address gaps in one’s own knowledge is an important skill.


Philosophies and Principles


It is now recognised that child protection departments are not the best service entry points for most families who are struggling with multiple and complex problems, and that there are different populations of vulnerable children and families who could benefit from entering the system at different points. There has been a much stronger focus on early intervention and prevention. And, in general, the focus has shifted from risks and deficits to strengths and capabilities. The service sector has moved from a narrowly focused “silo” approach, where organisations only deal with an individual’s specific issue, to one based on a holistic, public health model: changes that are best exemplified by the motto “Protecting children is everyone’s business” (Hunter & Price-Robertson, 2014).


Child Aware Approaches are (Hunter & Price-Robertson, 2014):


A. Family-sensitive:

  • Principle 1. Identify and respond to the needs of adults who are parents.

  • Principle 2. Acknowledge and build on family strengths while responding to family stressors and risk factors for child abuse and neglect.

B. Child-inclusive:

  • Principle 3. Understand and apply knowledge of children’s needs at each stage of their physical, cognitive, emotional and social development.

  • Principle 4. Recognise and be sensitive to each child’s unique perspective and experience.

  • Principle 5. Include children as active participants in decisions that affect them.

  • Principle 6. Promote child-safe environments.

C. Strengths-based:

  • Principle 7. Enable parents by promoting their parenting role as a motivator for positive change.

  • Principle 8. Build children’s resilience by addressing their vulnerabilities and promoting effective, consistent caregiving.

D. Collaborative:

  • Principle 9. Develop and maintain connections between adult-focused services and child- and family-focused services.

E. Culturally competent:

  • Principle 10. Understand cultural influences on family and parenting practices and respond in a culturally sensitive way.

Practice Approach


A practice approach that will incorporate the needs of parents’ children as well a parent needs themselves involves three aspects (Emerging Minds, 2021):

  1. Ask about children and the parent-child relationship as part of the general information-gathering process.

  2. Focus on the parent’s strengths and the hopes they have for their children.

  3. Use the PERCS Conversation Guides to help have difficult conversations with parents.

Ask about children. Child-aware and parent-sensitive practice in adult services recognises the need to ask clients if they are a parent; and ask parents about their relationship with their children when gathering information, e.g. as part of a biopsychosocial assessment. Ask about how the children are being affected but be careful how you do that so you don’t add to the responsibility or mother blame (if speaking with women). The PERCS Conversation Guides (described below) can assist with this. A child-aware approach acknowledges and considers the experiences of children, so that they don’t become an ‘invisible’ part of service delivery.


Focus on strengths and hopes. Recognise the parent’s strengths and the hopes they have for their relationship with their children. Encourage and discuss the parent’s strengths, skills and knowledge. Reflect on the ways they’ve overcome adversity in the past, how they’ve been able to parent in the way they would like, and how they’ve taken care of their children in the past. Through discussing the positives and negatives practitioners can work with parents to help strengthen the parent-child relationship. Connection with parents is what children want because they love their parents. Children, and how they are impacted by parent’s issues or problems, can be a motivating factor in parent’s recovery, providing an incentive to change.


Use the PERCS Conversation Guides. The PERCS conversation guides help practitioners have difficult conversations with parents around the impact of adult health issues or parental and family adversities on children’s daily lives. Example questions to help reduce some of the shame and stigma associated with parents’ experience of adversity and allow them to honestly share concerns include:

  • ‘What’s it like being a parent to (child’s name)?’

  • ‘How would you describe your relationship with (child’s name)? How do you think they’d describe their relationship with you?’

  • ‘Have you noticed any differences in the way (child’s name) responds to, approaches and/or interacts with you during tough times?’

  • ‘What aspects of the adversity impact on your relationship with (child’s name) the most? What do you think they’re noticing about this?’

If you feel you lack expertise in the area, tap into the expertise of others to address gaps in your own knowledge. However, showing genuineness, empathy and respect while asking parents what might help is an important starting point.


Emerging Minds’ PERCS suite includes:

Emerging Minds also has resources to assist practitioners supporting parents with mental health issues at https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/parental-mental-illness-and-child-aware-practice/


Other resources around supporting children can be found on the Emerging Minds website at https://learning.emergingminds.com.au/all-courses


Building Children’s Resilience


Engage with parents through constructive, preventative conversations about building their children’s resilience. The following questions may help (Emerging Minds, 2021a):

  • Can you help children build independence?’ Encouraging children to take age-appropriate, manageable risks helps them to develop self-confidence.

  • Do you praise the effort, or the outcome?’ Measuring success in endeavour rather than results teaches children that’s it’s OK to fail – and that ‘having a go’ and completing a challenge is just as important as the result.

  • Do you try and solve every problem?’ The temptation may be to leap in and fix things, but this doesn’t model a self-starting approach to problem solving.

  • Do you try to prevent every problem?’ Allowing children to encounter uncomfortable situations, then find solutions, helps them to predict future problems.

  • Can you help your children identify and regulate strong emotions?’ Empathy and compassion are powerful tools: showing children that you understand their emotions and difficulties makes it possible for them to ‘go easy’ on themselves and realise that negative feelings don’t last forever.

  • Do you stop and acknowledge when things are going well?’ Celebrating the good times makes it easier for children to respond when things aren’t going so well and gives them a set of benchmark emotions to aim for on the rebound.

Addressing Child Sleep Problems


Children’s sleep is a concern for many parents, particularly during infancy and adolescence. Parents may need support to improve their child’s sleeping habits and confidence in addressing child sleep problems, particularly if the parent is experiencing mental health issues or the child has complex needs (MacVean & Wade, 2021).


What can professionals do?


Professionals can support parents in the following ways:

  • Ask parents about their child’s sleep habits, e.g. number of hours, times they go to sleep/wake up, if they nap, if they sleep through the night, if they need help to get to sleep. This will help determine if there is a problem.

  • Ask parents how they feel about their child’s sleep, e.g. “Is your child’s sleep causing you concern or affecting family wellbeing?”

  • Ask parents to explain the ways their child’s sleep is impacting on them and their family.

  • If parents are concerned about their child’s sleep habits, offer reassurance and information, and a referral to specialist support if needed. Provide parents with information about typical sleep patterns for children of different ages, resources and tips to promote good sleep habits (e.g. healthy eating, regular exercise and routines for bedtime). Use www.raisingchildren.net.au to find information about sleep or refer parents to the site. A search for ‘sleep’ will result in information about sleep for newborns, babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, school age, school-age and pre-teens, and teenagers (MacVean & Wade, 2021).


Supporting Material / References

(Available on request)


Bromfield, L., & Miller, R. (2012). Cumulative harm. Melbourne, Australia: Victorian Government Department of Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.cpmanual.vic.gov.au/our-approach/best-interests-case-practice-model/cumulative-harm


COAG: Council of Australian Governments. (2009). Protecting children is everyone’s business: National framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009-2020. Retrieved from https://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/families-and-children/publications-articles/protecting-children-is-everyones-business


Emerging Minds. (2021). In focus: Parent-child relationships. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/in-focus-parent-child-relationships/


Emerging Minds. (2021a). In focus: Resilience. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/in-focus-resilience/


Emerging Minds. (~2015). Child-aware practice. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/online-course/child-aware-practice/ This course has a number of videos that demonstrate the use of the PERCS Conversation Guides.


Hunter, C. & Price-Robertson, R. (2014). The good practice guide to child aware approaches: Keeping children safe and well. Melbourne, Australia: Child Family Community Australia. Retrieved from https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/good-practice-guide-child-aware-approaches-keeping-children-safe-and-wel


MacVean, M., & Wade, C. (2021). Child sleep problems. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/child-sleep-problems/