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Safety around other people
Many young people dealing with substance use will continue to use after the birth of their child. A strong therapeutic relationship should allow you to open a discussion about safe planning and harm minimisation so that the client’s desire to use substances is addressed and the consequences for their child are planned for.
Preparing a solid list of ‘safe people’ who are well known to the client and child 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 list of safe people with whom he/she 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 list of safe people 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 their parents’ list of safe people, it’s less likely they will experience discomfort or distress when left unexpectedly with that person.
Sharpening a young parent’s sense of caution
For young parents it can be difficult to identify an appropriate carer, particularly when things are challenging and options are limited.
For example, a young mother might decide that her neighbour – an outwardly friendly man who is always at home – is an ideal person to care for her child while she is out socialising or attending appointments, meetings, interviews etc.
Attempt to shift your client’s perspective so that they learn to view a relative stranger’s willingness to care for someone else’s children with a degree of caution. Emphasise the potential risks of leaving a child in the care of someone with whom there is no history and encourage your client to ask themselves questions such as, ‘What should I know about this person before I leave my kids with him/her?’
Young children of transient clients come into contact with new people regularly.
Continual exposure to strangers often results in young children demonstrating a concerning willingness to go to strangers. A young parent might not view this as a concern; however, it’s important for you to highlight the potential consequences of this.
Availability doesn’t always equate to suitability
Relatives, grandparents and great-grandparents might be available to watch your client’s child 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 a keener sense wariness and sharper common sense.
Clarify the boundaries of your role
In the course of your work with young parents, you’ll more than likely experience a situation in which you’re asked to watch your client’s children while they run an errand or attend a meeting. This is the perfect opportunity to highlight the importance of a list of safe people; emphasise and explain why you, as the client’s worker, are not an appropriate fit for the list, which should comprise only individuals with whom the client has a longstanding personal relationship or individuals with demonstrated capacity to responsibly care for children (a teacher, sports coach, a close friend’s parent etc.).
Ensure your client understands your professional yet supportive boundaries and the limitations of your role.
Clarifying the limits of your role is something you’ll do over and over again as you guide your client through challenging times or new experiences with their child; for example, if a client calls to ask how she should respond to her newborn’s excessive coughing, it’s important that instead of offering solutions, you steer her to solve the problem herself (which in this instance may be as simple as her recognising the need to call a medical professional).