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Lewisham Safeguarding Children Partnership

If you are worried about the welfare or safety of a child or young person

Email: mashagency@lewisham.gov.uk

Tel: 020 8314 6660

Difficult conversations with parents / carers

A guide for practitioners who work with children and their families.

The information in this guide is not exhaustive and it should be used as a reference alongside practitioners own safeguarding practices and in conjunction with appropriate supervision. 

Four factors to consider when preparing for a difficult conversation with a parent or carer:

  1. Principles – that underpin safeguarding children.
  2. Planning – how to plan or be prepared
  3. The Conversation – things to consider when having a conversation
  4. Examples – open questions and suggestions

1. Principles – to support safeguarding discussions with parents / carers

  • Always take time to plan the conversation before you speak to parents.
  • Be open and honest, use basic language, avoid jargon.
  • Ensure child protection policies are clear.
  • Include child protection issues in information you give out to parents you are working with.
  • Explain your statutory duty to safeguard children’s welfare, “duty of care” and requirement to report your concerns.
  • Ensure parents / carers sign to acknowledge they have read and understood your safeguarding policy and offer them a copy.
  • Use Early Help, refer to a children’s centre, or signpost to other support agencies, i.e. health visitor, parenting courses etc.

2. Planning

If you feel it’s too risky to talk to parents before speaking to Children’s Social Care, then don’t. Do not put yourself or a child at risk, e.g. if:-

  • There is suspected sexual abuse.
  • Parents could destroy evidence or hinder a police investigation.
  • It is possible the child could be silenced.

Otherwise it’s good practice to discuss concerns with parents/carers and tell them you are going to make a referral. Before your conversation:-

  • Plan how you are going to broach your concern and how to respond to different responses, e.g. anger, denial, emotional breakdown etc.
  • Choose a time and place to give full privacy.
  • Consider the timing of the meeting (e.g. a tired, crying baby, or collecting other children from school etc.) depending on the urgency of the concern.
  • Adapt your style to the parent, consider language barriers or learning difficulties.
  • Acknowledge your own anxiety about dealing with a difficult situation as it may affect your communication style.
  • Have the child’s key worker with you or nearby for support and as a witness (and vice versa) or get support from Children’s Social Care.
  • If previous experience of the parent/carer suggests they may pose a risk, make a full risk assessment and do not meet alone.

 3. The Conversation

Make sure members of staff know where you are and what you are doing before a meeting. Tips and ideas for having a difficult conversation:-

  • Consider your position in the room so nobody feels trapped.
  • Ensure children cannot overhear you and are occupied (provide toys etc.)
  • Frame the concern in a model of help and support.
  • Be straight forward – Tell the parent/carer a referral to the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub is going to be or has been made.
  • Tell them that “as a parent/carer they will want to get to the bottom of the matter”.
  • Give clear explanations.
  • Always remain confidential and professional.
  • Words are sometimes really hard to find when approaching a parent – use ‘active listening’.
  • Do not argue, interrupt, give advice, pass judgement, jump to conclusions or let the parent’s sentiment affect you.
  • Avoid excessive reassurance, it may not be all right.
  • Do encourage the parent to talk.
  • Clarify what the parent means.
  • Summarise what the parent has said.
  • Consider your communication style: tone, pitch, speed of voice, body language (body slightly to the side, with an open stance or sit) be clam, make eye contact and appreciate they may need to talk.
  • Consider the parents point of view which may be influenced by; bad experience of services, lack of trust, limited or distorted understanding of what is appropriate for children, learning difficulties, cultural and language barriers.
  • Explain the nature of your concern using tact and diplomacy, but be direct and use factual information “Jodie was not brought to the last 2 appointments, what is the reason for this?”
  • Do not use words such as child protection or child abuse, try words such as concerns, welfare, and duty of care.

Use your eyes and ears more than your mouth.

4. Examples

This is not an exhaustive list and you may want to use a technique of your own, following the general principle of open and probing questions:

  • Avoid using “I think” which indicates it could be your own opinion.
  • Avoid using jargon, try:-
    • “I need to talk to you about the injury to XY’s face, can you tell me what happened?”
    • “XY has been very lethargic today and says he has not slept, is there anything going on that might be troubling him?”
    • “XY’s behaviour has changed dramatically over the last few weeks, (s)he has gone from being a happy, outgoing child to a very quiet, withdrawn child. Have you any idea what could have caused this?”
    • “Whenever there is a worry about any child, or they something about being hurt we legally have to pass on that information to children’s services – you may have read this in the parent’s information/handbook when XY started?”
    • “XY told a member of staff he is slapped every night, and, because of what he has said I have informed Children’s Social Care. All settings are expected to talk to Children’s Social Care when children say things like this, and Children’s Social Care have asked me to talk to you about this. Can you tell me what happened?”

 Questions can start with the following:-

  • “is there any reason why……….”
  • “we need to have a chat………..”
  • “XY has said……………………..”
  • “I have noticed XY has seemed hungry in the mornings, is (s)he managing to have breakfast before he comes to school?”
  • XY has a bruise on his face but he can’t remember how it happened, do you know how he did it?”

Next steps?

Once you have had a conversation or a series of discussions with the parent or carer, you may need to consider what actions, if any, you need to take. Consider the following:-

  • Professional curiosity – have you confirmed the response you have received from other agencies? Do you need to make further enquiries?
  • Trust your instincts – You have spoken to the parent/carer and you know the child – trust your instincts if you still have concerns.
  • Follow safeguarding procedures – ensure you check your agency safeguarding procedures and seek guidance from an appropriate person.
  • Pre and Post Supervision – agencies have varying supervision procedures; be sure to raise your concerns and get guidance and support before and after you have had a conversation with a parent/carer as this will give you a chance to reflect on what happened and discuss what needs to happen next (reflective practice).
  • Escalation – If you are still concerned about a decision or practice you can escalate your concerns; the LSCP recommend you follow our Resolving Professional Differences / Escalation Policy.
  • Referral – Following any discussion, if you are concerned about the safety of a child or you believe they are at risk of immediate danger – contact the police. If you believe the child is at risk of significant harm – seek guidance from the MASH team.
  • Early Help – You may want to contact Early Help or create a Team Around the Family.

What are we worried about? What’s working well? What needs to happen?

What words would you use to talk about this problem so that parents/carers understand?

Use plain language and avoid jargon.

Consider any problems the family might be having which are making this problem harder to deal with e.g. housing, finances, isolation, or family breakdown.

Example questions:-

  • I need to talk to you about the mark XY’s face, (s)he can’t remember how it happened, and do you know how (s)he did this?
  • XY’s behaviour has changed a lot in the last few weeks.   (S)he has gone from being happy and outgoing to quiet and withdrawn – have you any idea what might have caused this this?
  • We are having a lot of problems with XY, (s)he seems angry.   Is there anything happening at home which would help us to understand this?
  • I know we have talked about this before but I am still worried because XY is still quite dirty when she comes to school and other children have commented that (s)he smells. Do you have everything you need at home to wash clothes and to have a bath regularly?

Who are the people who care for the child? And what are the best things about how they care for them?

Who would the child say are the most important people in their lives? And how do they help them grow up well?

Example questions:-

  • It sounds like things are a bit difficult at the moment, is anyone supporting you?
  • What would XY say are the best things about his life?
  • You have been doing well to get XY to school with all that is happening, is there anything we can do to support you further?
  • Have you noticed this problem before? How was it sorted out in the past?

Now you have explored this more, how worried are you about this child? 10 is not worried; 0 is so worried you need to make a referral for support or safeguarding.

  • What would you need to see for it to be 10?
  • What do you think is the next step to getting this worry sorted out?
  • Have you done any direct work with the child?

Next steps:

  • Curiosity – verify any information with professionals or other family members.
  • Supervision – seek guidance before and after interaction with parents/carers to reflect on the information gathered.
  • Procedures – follow your agency safeguarding procedures.
  • Referral – If you are concerned about the safety of the child or young person.
  • Escalation – If you are not satisfied with the outcome of the referral and still have concerns.


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