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Many in your client group will have extensive experience with the Child Protection system. Commonly, clients will have grown up with parents whose ability to parent and role model was impaired by substance use or alcohol. In these instances, your clients may have been placed into the care of others such as grandparents, foster parents or statutory bodies.
A parent’s inability to offer stable parenting often forces children to mature in certain ways far sooner than others in their age group; for example, a child whose mother struggles with substance use may learn to cook her own meals from an early age, change her baby brother’s nappy and dress herself and her siblings for school.
While this kind of childhood lacks the influence of a stable role model, the early exposure to responsibility often means that when the child becomes a parent herself, she may demonstrate increased capacity across a spectrum of parenting demands and heightened resourcefulness for someone her age.
Her parenting style, however, will likely be based on an assortment of observations and behaviours born of necessity as opposed to imitating a well-rounded parenting style observed first-hand. Core to this somewhat jumbled approach is a keen sense of fear. The client’s own experience with Child Protection will often deeply affect her beliefs and result in a tendency to conceal information for fear of prompting Child Protection’s involvement.
By the time many young parents who were raised without positive parental role models have their first child, their own parents will have made significant changes and improvements in their lives and in some cases will be fit to assist with parenting duties.
It’s also common for clients, upon the birth of their child, to turn to whoever raised them for support and assistance; for example, a 20-year-old client who was raised by her grandmother will call on her for advice and assistance when needed. This can be cause for concern as the grandmother’s age, which was not an issue when parenting her grandchild, may now have limited ability to care for a great-grandchild. Health issues such as dementia and impaired mobility, and the baby-proofing standard of the grandmother’s house can severely impair her ability to supervise and provide adequate care for a young child.
The following example offers insight into another situation common among young parents in your client group. A client who was removed as a child from her mother’s care and raised in out-of-home care, gave birth to a son who was later removed by Child Protection. The client’s mother had, by this stage, got her life on track to a degree that satisfied Child Protection enough to appoint her as carer of her grandson.
This kind of arrangement can lead to a host of difficult emotions and challenges for the young parent, who will often be – and perhaps rightfully so – somewhat resentful that their mother has been awarded parenting duties yet wasn’t able to parent her own child. Conflicts usually arise when mother and daughter (that is, client and parent) disagree on how to parent the child. It can be a particularly disempowering experience for a young parent, one that is quite difficult to process and respond to appropriately due to the situation’s intense emotional complexity and the client’s difficulty processing thoughts and feelings regarding her mother’s new relationship with Child Protection.
A chaotic lifestyle can confuse a client’s sense of priority. For example, a young parent with a penchant for pokies and a smoking habit will likely spend a portion of their limited weekly funds on these habits. As a young parent, budget considerations must allow for nappies, formula, baby clothes and other essential items; however, it’s not uncommon to encounter young parents using funds and compromising necessary purchases.
Money shortfalls can lead to things such as watering down formula, which is highly dangerous, or attempting to make up the deficit by spending more on the pokies.
While it mightn’t be a young parent’s intention to put their needs before their child’s, they are usually attempting to make a tight budget work without sacrificing expensive, non-essential items such as cigarettes, alcohol, other substances and pokies etc.
Strong therapeutic relationships will help to smooth the path for conversations about priorities.
While broaching the subject can risk making the client feel judged for their choices (and so is best approached with sensitivity), it’s a conversation that must be had so the client learns to recognise situations where non-essential spending is being prioritised over essential items.
The fact that clients are young and need to remain connected to their age group (to an extent), introduces somewhat grey areas to the subject of priorities. While it’s important to make sure that clients understand the distinction between essential and non-essential spending (and that budgets reflect this understanding), spending on non-essential things can also be beneficial as a form of respite. For example, a 19-year-old mother approaching her twentieth birthday might want to celebrate the occasion the same way others in her circle would; that is, by drinking, staying out late or perhaps all night and potentially using substances. Allowing for this kind of respite every now and then is OK so long as a safety plan is in place; that is, the young parent has secured adequate care for her child for the duration of her celebration and afterwards to accommodate the coming down period.
Employment and Centrelink
Financial strain is obviously alleviated by steady employment. With money coming in consistently, assessing priorities needn’t be such a stressful exercise. For young parents on Centrelink payments, a strong sense of self-worth can come from securing employment. In addition, work provides a certain kind of respite.
It’s generally expected that when children to go to school mothers return to work (it’s far more difficult these days to remain on payments indefinitely as many clients’ parents and grandparents may have done). Remaining unemployed and relying on Centrelink as the primary source of income is often a somewhat learned behaviour; that is, it’s part of an intergenerational pattern modelled by the client’s parents and/or grandparents.
Work ethic is also something typically modelled by parents. If a client has received poor role modelling in this field it can be difficult to expect them to demonstrate a solid work ethic when it comes to performing their job. Education around this subject is also essential so that clients come to realise certain behaviours in the work place are not acceptable or sustainable; for example, frequently calling in sick, turning up late and leaving early, putting in half efforts or making unsubstantiated dissatisfaction with their job known to others (customers, colleagues, social media etc.). Such behaviours are likely to jeopardise employment.
On the flip side, many young parents keen to generate income will take jobs poorly suited to their circumstances.
For example, a nightshift job in a hotel that requires a young mother with a toddler to work from 10pm until 4am is not practical, as traditional childcare options are not available for these times, and her ability to parent will also be greatly compromised by fatigue and disrupted routine.
To give clients as much information and motivation as they need to find employment and advance their situation, it’s worth discussing long-term prospects such as TAFE courses (some institutions’ programs allow young parents to bring their children along). Not only does study offer respite and generate feelings of self-worth and purpose, but it also helps young parents connect to new communities and provides opportunities to develop fresh relationships and networks.
Self-care: sleep and accessing supports
Maintaining routine around new babies and young children is challenging. It can be particularly difficult to find time for sleep or to experience quality sleep. Be sure to normalise fatigue and the need for sleep and steer young parents to take advantage of times when the child is sleeping to either relax or to get some sleep for themselves regardless of the time of day.
If professional assistance is needed or education around babies’ sleeping patterns would benefit the client, consider linking in support services such as maternal and child health.
The demands of parenting will leave clients exhausted and stressed. In these states, young parents will find it difficult to access supports and attend appointments. For example, a young mother might find herself too exhausted to attend her mental health appointment If possible it’s important to encourage and assist young parents to attend these appointments, by providing simple support such as transport or being present at the appointment.
Prioritising children over partners
Adjusting to life with a new baby can be difficult for a couple. A child’s presence and its needs can shift and affect the dynamics of a relationship, particularly for young clients who, developmentally, mightn’t yet have the skills to balance the needs and demands of both partner and child.
It is helpful for the client if the worker is able to engage the partner in the child’s care.
At times this is not possible so workers are encourage to have discussions with both parents around the importance of the child’s needs. It is not uncommon for young mothers to be in a relationship with an older partner.
Partners are a source of support, however, clients often fear that if their partner’s needs aren’t met or prioritised the relationship will suffer. In situations such as this, call on family-inclusive practice to bring the partner into discussions around how to work best as team and support one another.
Even in cases where the relationship is volatile, your role is to help your client manage and improve the relationship if it’s clear she wishes to remain with her partner. Working to strengthen your client’s communication skills, arming her with information, forming safety plans and connecting her and her partner with counselling or other support services are advisable places to start.
Understanding grandparents’ priorities
Many young clients feel that their child should also be their parents’ priority. Where grandparents are reluctant to be on-call babysitters, conflict can arise. A conversation around priorities should emphasise that, as a parent, the client has primary responsibility for the child, and that expecting others to prioritise the child’s needs over their own is unreasonable.
Prioritising child’s development and health needs
Where a child requires special medical attention, clients may need assisitance on how to access the necessary supports and how to build time into their routine that allows them to follow through with specialists’ recommendations. For example, clients may need to access a speech pathologist for their child and prioritise setting aside time each day to practise speech exercises.
Allowing check-ups and scheduled appointments for both parents and child to lapse is common as young parents juggle the demands of parenting. In your discussions about priorities, normalise the difficulties young parents experience with regard to keeping appointments while also emphasising the importance of sticking to immunisation schedules and other key appointments. Be sure to check in with clients regularly to ensure immunisation is on their radar. Where removal has occurred, encourage your client to follow up their child’s health needs with whoever is caring for the child.
Highlight the importance of cultivating a solid relationship with a local GP.
Many clients’ transience means there’s little or no consistency when it comes to GP visits and medical files, which can make establishing a medical history difficult. A strong relationship with a youth- and substance-use friendly GP is a great option, where available. With such doctors, clients are more likely to feel relaxed and comfortable opening up. In this non-judgemental environment, a client can share information without fear of invoking judgement, shaming or notification/external intervention such as Child Protection. In addition, they can rely on a steady support and source of information regarding their child’s health and development.
Defining ‘healthy’ conflict
Families experience conflict to varying degrees. What is considered normal conflict can differ wildly from one family to the next. Similarly, how the conflict is dealt with (that is, how family members bounce back and reengage, or don’t) can also vary greatly.
Identify how your client defines normal conflict to determine what kind of discussions you need to have around the subject.
A client may consider intense screaming matches and physical contact normal; however, your talks will address why this is an unhealthy way of communicating and dealing with issues, and offer alternative strategies.
When a client and their parents disagree on aspects of parenting, conflict can arise. In situations where Child Protection has appointed a client’s parent as guardian of their grandchild, it can create tension as the client is often left feeling disempowered and, in some circumstances, betrayed by their parent who is now in close contact with Child Protection.
Helping your client to navigate these complex situations and the emotional strain that comes with this is essential.
Direct your client towards regular and open discussions with their family. Over time the parties may come to some agreements to work together in the best interests of the child.
Changing family culture and dynamic is a difficult task – approach it with patience and sensitivity. Hopefully, over time, family members come to recognise the benefits of monitoring how they communicate with each other and enjoy a less turbulent dynamic.
Navigating difficult conversations
Potential for conflict also exists where difficult conversations need to be had. For example, a client’s grandmother, by whom she was raised and still lived with, provided regular care for the client’s toddler. However, now in her seventies and struggling with dementia, the grandmother’s ability to supervise the child and meet the child’s needs was compromised. The client made the difficult but essential decision that it was no longer safe leave the toddler in her grandmother’s care unattended. This caused conflict from the grandmother’s inability/unwillingness to acknowledge or accept her compromised abilities, leading to disagreements due to the fact the pair still lived together.
In such situations, guide your client on how to approach particularly sensitive conversations and, where needed, consider mediating these difficult discussions.
It’s also important to discuss with clients how to minimise exposing their children to conflict. Often a client’s chaotic lifestyle will mean that friends and acquaintances come and go from the client’s address regularly; however, this isn’t ideal for a child’s safety. Discuss with your client who should and shouldn’t know the client’s address, taking care to emphasise that the home should be a child’s safe space and that safety can be compromised when too many people in the client’s circle have access to that space.
Conflict with services
Clients can often be quick to compromise or terminate their relationship with services and community connections. In these cases, it’s best to discuss the potential consequences of the fallout and highlight for the client how burning the bridge might compound their difficulties.
Encouraging the client to revisit the service and talk through the issues should be the first port of call.
For example, if the client experiences a problem with a childcare worker and is ready to pull their child out of care, it’s important to open a discussion and highlight the negative consequences of damaging such a connection: if the child is taken out of Child Protection-funded childcare, what will happen next? Is there an alternative childcare facility in the local area or will moving the child require a lengthy and impractical daily commute? What will be the impact for the child? Encourage your client to meet with the childcare worker to discuss the issues and implement strategies to prevent breakdown of the placement for the young child.
Assist client to prepare for these discussion by explaining what will happen and preparing what they want to say. It is important to empower clients to be active in the discussion, and to advocate on their behalf if they feel unable to do so.
Drawing a client’s attention to the potential negative consequences of conflict with services and connections, and encouraging them to mend fractured relationships through dialogue, will over time improve their communication and coping skills.
Education around parenting skills can be hugely beneficial for clients whose childhoods lacked positive role models and for whom there exists gaps in their parenting knowledge. Education services for young parents provide opportunities for clients to meet new people, observe others’ parenting styles and to pick up tips and new ideas.
By guiding clients through everyday experiences and situations ranging from playing with children to ordering a meal at a café, you will provide positive role modelling.
If a waiter delivers an incorrect order and your client reacts irrationally/aggressively/rudely, seize the opportunity to model how such a situation is best handled. Discuss the notion of controllable situations vs. uncontrollable situations to highlight the futility of jumping to anger in situations beyond our control (traffic, long queues etc.). Instead, explore alternative responses and points of view as well as practical tools to call on in stressful situations.
Outreach offers excellent opportunities to practise positive modelling through opportunistic intervention. When visiting clients in their home you will be granted insights into their living situation (sleeping arrangement, hygiene and cleanliness, state of the laundry and kitchen etc.) and positioned to offer tailored advice regarding basic living skills informed by your observations.
Where it’s clear that a client needs help or guidance, be wary of offering advice that emphasises negatives.
Suggestions risk being taken as criticisms so approach these conversations with caution, sensitivity and empathy.
Your counsel should aim to normalise the difficulties the client is experiencing and offer helpful solutions. Strong therapeutic relationships usually smooth the path for sensitive discussions such as these.
A client’s support network (parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles etc.) might also benefit from positive modelling. Where you think this might be useful, consider arranging a time to meet with the client’s support network to explore the subject together.
Talks with your client should emphasise the importance of consistency where positive modelling for their children is concerned.
Often clients will let you know there are certain things they won’t do in front of their children (heated fights, swearing, smoking, using substances); however, many of these behaviours are best avoided generally and so discussions should explore how to go about changing behaviours so that positive modelling for the children is practised constantly and maintains consistency.
Young parents will often insist they don’t need a break. Many fear that Child Protection will interpret their need for respite as failing to cope, which is not the case. Be sure to normalise the need for rest by discussing respite options and their usefulness for all kinds of parents (young, single, over-worked, middle-aged etc.)
The challenge and stress of parenting can leave young parents feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
Where it’s clear a client is struggling (perhaps they don’t have access to childcare or family supports to call on), respite facilities can arrange temporary care for the child/children (for example, a monthly overnight stay) to allow the parents a brief but much needed rest. Local foster care agencies can assist in identifying respite facilities in your client’s community.
Whether formal (with family or friends) or informal (organised with an agency), respite offers the opportunity for a young parent to take some time for themselves and regroup or partake in activities they enjoy. As wait lists for official services can be lengthy, respite is usually organised through family or friends willing to care for the child for a short period (a night or weekend). At times there may be opportunity for children who’ve spent time in foster care to return to their foster parents for a night or two.
Conflict between your client and family members, or their partner’s family is common and often hinders the client’s ability to organise respite.
For example, if a young mother has a poor relationship with her partner’s mother, who is free during the week and otherwise willing and able to care for the child when needed, it’s worth opening a dialogue that attempts to resolve the conflict or to negotiate another arrangement that prioritises the child’s needs (which, in this case, are intertwined with securing respite for the mother). Here you will call on family-inclusive practice to try and bring all parties onto the same page – or as close as possible – for the benefit of the child.
‘Safety hand’ considerations
Relatives, grandparents and great-grandparents might be available to watch your client’s child/children regularly; however, willingness and availability doesn’t necessarily mean that person is a suitable choice. Encourage your client to consider their options from as many angles as possible; for example, is your client’s 80-year-old grandmother clear-headed and mobile enough to monitor a toddler’s movements for an entire afternoon? Is the client’s aunt’s house baby-proofed enough to ensure dangerous liquids are completely out of a child’s reach? Is it sensible to leave the children with their father against whom your client has an active intervention order even though their personal issues have been resolved? Such questions and what if-based discussions will help your client to develop the skills to assess safety when exploring respite options.
Preparing a solid list of ‘safe people’ who are well known to the client and child. This will help to safeguard against situations where the child is left last-minute with a new acquaintance. Ideally, a young parent will have at least five people on their list, also known as a safety hand. Young children should also have a safety hand of people with whom they feels safe and familiar.
The lifestyle of young person with a new child (particularly a young parent who is also dealing with substance use) might see them fall in and out of contact with the people around them. It’s important to make sure that those on a client’s safety hand are people with whom the client has regular communication. Upkeep of these relationships will ensure that calling on that person for assistance in moments of crisis (whether it be asking them to mind the child at short notice or to pick the child up from childcare in an emergency etc.) unfolds as smoothly as possible for both parties. In addition, if the child is exposed to regular contact with those on his/her parents’ safety hand, it’s less likely they will experience discomfort or distress when left unexpectedly with that person.