Talking to Parents

Jon Trew

 Independent Safeguarding Consultant

The toughest part of safeguarding is talking to parents.
How do you bring up the subject that there are concerns about their child?
How much do you tell them? What if you are wrong?

Safeguarding guidance in both England and in Wales emphasises that schools and other childcare settings must work in partnership with parents. All childcare experts and educators know that if we want to help children to thrive and learn, we have to work with parents.  Most of the time this is easy, as parents usually want what is best for their children.  The challenge is what do we do when parents are disengaged, or even part of the problem?

If the child is at risk of ‘significant harm’ then we should contact the Police or Social Services immediately.   It may be that the source or cause of the ‘significant harm’ is not the parents, but a third party, or even for another reason. In that case Social Services may ask you to raise the matter with the parents.  It could also be that Social Services may consider that the threshold of ‘significant harm’ has not been reached.  In that case they will only discuss the child’s case further with you if, and when you have the permission of the parents to do so.  In those circumstances they are likely to ask you to go back and raise your concerns with the child’s parents.  Social Services may have asked you to tell the parents that they will need to discuss the issue of concern with them.

Starting these conversations can be the most difficult part of the process.  Having the opening line prepared is a great help.  Practice the lines by going over the words in your head, or even speaking them aloud when you are on your own, or in the car. Try writing some ideas down, though do not read from a pre-prepared script.   These are a few of the phrases I’ve used;

  • There is something I need to share with you. It’s in connection with your child and the concerns we have had. I wanted you to know this so that it will not come as a surprise to you if someone from Children’s Services gets in touch.
  • I want to be open with you about my concerns and tell you about the actions we are required to take whenever we have any worries about the safety and welfare of a child.
  • I have a duty because of my professional position to inform Children’s Services about my concerns and it is possible that you might be contacted by someone who will ask to speak with you.

If you work in a team, perhaps you could do this as an exercise at a staff meeting. Show your colleagues these examples and then ask them in pairs to come up with a phrase, or sentence that you could use to start these difficult conversations.  Once they have done this ask each group to read out the phrase they have devised.  This will inevitably create a discussion and debate.  Once everyone has done this you could then ask them to come up with another phrase. This time it would be one used to draw the discussion to a close.

  • I want to continue working with you and your child and do not want this to prevent us working together in the future.
  • Is there anything in particular that you would like me to say to Children’s Services when I contact them?”

Try to avoid technical terms like ‘duty of care’ and acronyms like CAMHS, DVPN or MASH.

Keep the conversation factual and avoid passing judgements about the quality of parenting.  We should use a phrase like ‘children need to be given breakfast before they come to school’ rather than the phrase ‘good parents give their children breakfast before they go to school.’  It is hard not to get angry with adults if it is about possible neglect of abuse. However, while it may make us feel better, we should ask ourselves this question, does it help the child?  Invariably getting angry with parents just makes matters worse.

It is also important to record this event on the child’s safeguarding record.  It does not need to be a verbatim account but needs to include the dates, times and names of the people involved the areas of concern. It should also include a note of whom we may have shared this information with and why.

It is important to understand our role in this process.  Our job is not to investigate. That is the job of the Police and Social Services, however, we may need to clarify information that is confusing or unclear.  Our job is to listen to children and be their first line of defence.