Having difficult conversations with parents

Act early.

This page provides information on how to support parents and families, have difficult conversations and talk about concerns around abuse and neglect.


Most parents want the best for their children. Families from all sorts of backgrounds can have problems that put their children at risk of abuse or neglect.

Sometimes parents or carers are struggling with a number of problems – drug and alcohol abuse, mental health issues, or money problems. Sometimes they do not have or know how to access the knowledge, skills or support they need to care for their children when things are difficult. These things can make it hard to make good decisions for themselves and their children.

If you notice things may be starting to go wrong for a child or the people caring for them, it’s important to act early – by listening and supporting them, or putting them in touch with people who can help.

Your actions, however small, can make a big difference for a child, their family and whānau.


Here's a message from the Children's Action Plan Expert Advisory Group

Kia ora koutou,

We are the Expert Advisory Group to the Children’s Action Plan. We are a group of senior professionals from all agencies who work with vulnerable families and advise the CAP on professional issues.

As professional leaders working with challenging families we know very well how difficult some conversations can be with parents. Challenging parents about their alcohol and drug use, mental health, violence and the impact of these on their children is hard. Gaining their trust and engagement in change is also hard.

Having said that, we all know that these conversations are essential if we want to improve children's lives. The days when these were specialist skills known only to a few, senior professionals have gone. The numbers are such now that we all need the skills and confidence to have these conversations with parents.

Former Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills is a paediatrician and member of our group. In the videos below Russell demonstrates how he gently challenges families about these issues and gains their support for a referral to a children's team or to the Vulnerable Children's Hub. The videos show that the skills are in fact straightforward. Any children's professional can learn to have these conversations with parents with training and practice.

If you are in a Children's Team area you can expect training on these skills. You may have had training and experience already, in which case your input to the training will be welcome. Please make a point of completing the reading prior, learn as much as you can and then get out and use the skills.

If you're not in a Children's Team area, we believe you need these skills too. Talk to your manager and arrange training appropriate for your discipline. The Children's Action Plan Directorate will do its best to provide guidance on how this could be delivered outside of current CAP areas.

Kia kaha

The Children's Action Plan Expert Advisory Group

Having difficult conversations with parents

Dr. Russell Wills is a paediatrician who regularly refers children he has concerns about to support services.

Russell Wills (external link)

Click on the image to view the video.

In this interview Russell Wills explains how important it is for children’s workers to act on their concerns about vulnerable children.

Russell Wills interview (external link)

Click on the image to view the video.

In several scenarios, Russell Wills demonstrates how he refers families to a Children’s Team (external link) or to the Vulnerable Children’s Hub (external link) after a conversation with parents.

If you think a child is in immediate danger, call the Police on 111. If you suspect a child has already been abused or neglected, contact Child, Youth and Family.

Scenario 1 - Melissa is struggling with bipolar disorder (external link)

Scenario 1 (external link)

Click the image to view the video.

Scenario 2 - Darren discloses his violence towards his partner (external link)

Scenario 2 (external link)

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Scenario 3 - Melissa discolses domestic violence (external link)

Scenario 3 (external link)

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Dr. Russell Wills plays an adult mental health clinician talking to Melissa*, who has bipolar disorder. Melissa is not sticking to her recovery plan and her 4 year old daughter Sam is being affected by the condition.

*Thank you to Claire Gannon from the Children’s Action Plan Directorate for role playing ‘Melissa’ in this scenario. 

Dr. Russell Wills plays a community health worker talking to Darren** who has disclosed he is violent towards his partner Melissa. Sam, their 4 year old daughter, is witnessing the domestic violence. She’s not being hit, but she is affected by the violence.

**Thank you to Richard West from the Children’s Action Plan Directorate for role playing 'Darren’ in this scenario. 


Dr. Russell Wills plays a community social worker talking to Melissa* who has just disclosed domestic violence. Her 4 year old daughter Sam has witnessed the violence and the kindergarten teacher’s told the social worker that she is falling behind developmentally.

*Thank you to Claire Gannon from the Children’s Action Plan Directorate for role playing ‘Melissa’ in this scenario.

How do I refer a child to a Children’s Team?

Practitioners in the following Children's Team sites can refer a child directly to a Children's Team, via the referral and contact details on each team's page:

You will need the family’s consent to refer to a Children’s Team.

Read more about Children’s Teams.

How do I refer a child to the Vulnerable Children’s Hub?

If you are a professional or practitioner in Hamilton, Canterbury or Counties Manukau, you can contact the Vulnerable Children’s Hub (external link) with concerns about a vulnerable child, by:

You can refer a child to the Vulnerable Children’s Hub without engaging with the family.

However it is always good practice to talk with the family first.  More often than not, families struggling with issues know it is affecting their children and want to change, and change is more likely if the family is engaged from the start.

Read more about the Vulnerable Children's Hub.


Talking to families

If you’re comfortable talking to the family directly about something that worries you, here are some tips that others have found useful.

  • Quiet - choose a quiet time to talk rather than when there’s lots going on.
  • Support - focus on supporting the parent as well as providing safety for the child – eg, ‘If things get too much, you know you can drop him round to me for an hour or so.’
  • Ask, reflect - ask questions and encourage parents to reflect on things, eg, ‘You talked about trying to cut back on drinking – that must be hard, how’sImage shows a cartoon of a woman speaking on a telephone. it going?’
  • Don't criticise - talk about what you’re hearing and seeing but avoid criticism, eg, ‘Sounds like the baby’s giving you stress – I was wondering if things are all right.’
  • Show you care - talk about your worries in a way that shows your concern, eg, ‘You’re my friend and I really care about you. I worry that you and the kids might get hurt.’
  • It's for the best - appeal to the family’s desire to do the best for their child – eg, ‘If we keep hitting our kids, nothing will ever change – they’ll just grow up and hit our grandkids.
  • Consequences - talk about consequences - eg, ‘If something happened and she was home by herself, you and I would never forgive ourselves.’
  • Acknowledge - acknowledge the reality of what’s happened, then ask for their ideas about what they could do differently, eg, ‘He probably won’t stop having parties and getting wasted – is there a safe place the kids could go?’
Don’t try to intervene in a violent situation or when people are angry or drunk – call the police on 111 or Child, Youth and Family on 0508 326 459. If you are concerned that your safety may be put at risk by reporting and wish to remain anonymous, phone Crimestoppers NZ on 0800 555 111.

Ideas for supporting parents

  • Smile, say hi, and ask how they are.
  • Acknowledge how hard parenting can be.
  • Encourage them by telling them when they’re doing a great job.
  • Ask them what you can do to help.
  • Let them know if you’re able to provide support.
  • Offer practical help rather than advice – for example, offer to babysit, or to pick something up from the supermarket for them.

Talking to children

If you’re talking with a child and you’re worried something’s wrong, ask open questions to clarify whether you should be concerned:Image shows a family embracing.
  • I’m wondering if you’re OK?
  • What’s wrong?
  • How come you’re not with your mum/dad/nan?
  • How are things for you at home?
  • What can I do to help?

If a child tells you they have been hurt or abused, take them seriously. It is unusual for children or young people to make up stories about this.

They have done the right thing

It is important they feel they’ve done the right thing in telling you.

  • Let them know it’s good they told you.
  • Tell them it’s not their fault and it’s not OK.
  • Tell them you will get help – say something like ‘thank you for telling me, now I need to find someone to help me make sure you’re safe’.
  • Don’t let anyone who may be involved in the abuse know the child has said anything to you.
  • Write down what they said and how you responded.
  • Don’t question them further – it can confuse them and make further investigation more difficult.
  • Ring Child, Youth and Family on 0508 326 459 or the police on 111 as soon as possible.