Four words that could change a life

Anne Hollonds
Anne Hollonds


I was horrified to read about the death from starvation of 17 month old twins in suburban Sunnybank Hills, south of Brisbane. For all of us this story is incomprehensible and terrifying.

What really struck me was that no one around the family who felt concerned was able to help.

The sad truth is that for every tragic child death, there are many thousands of children living in desperate circumstances with families failing to cope.

Nationally a quarter of a million children were reported at risk of harm in 2011-12, andIn NSW last year over 64,000 children were reported as being at serious risk of harm. Child welfare authorities are struggling with the increasing numbers of notifications and in NSW we know that less than a third of these cases were investigated. There is heated political debate about numbers of child protection workers, however the question no-one is addressing is “Why are there 64,000 children reported as unsafe in their own homes in NSW alone?”

We have created a system which relies on sending more and more ambulances to the bottom of the cliff, instead of building a fence at the top of the cliff to keep kids safe. The truth is that there will never be ”enough” child protection workers if we expect them to do all the heavy lifting and we wait until the damage is done before anyone acts.


We need more prevention and much earlier action. When parents are struggling, usually someone in the family or neighbourhood has concerns, but often we don’t know what we can do to help.

We must first acknowledge that being a parent is not easy, even in the best of circumstances with lots of emotional and practical support. And if there are financial difficulties, relationship issues or mental health problems, it gets a lot harder.

So all parents of young children need all the help they can get. Asking for help is hard because it means admitting that you are not independent.  Our culture labels any kind of “dependency” a negative – think “welfare dependency” or “drug dependency”.

And yet in reality we are all inter-dependent. We all need each other in various ways, all of the time. So support with parenting young children should be an acceptable “right” not a sign of failure. Because we value all our children, we need to support parents to be the best mum or dad they can be.

If you have a niggling feeling that someone you know is not doing so well, it’s OK to say “How can I help you?” or  “Can I help you with the shopping/washing/baby-watching…..etc?”

Asking how can I help is better than saying RUOK, because they can't dismiss you with 'yes.'
“Remember that shame and fear of being judged are huge barriers for a parent to admit they need help.”

This is better than asking “Are you OK?” because if she says “Yes”, it’s hard to take the conversation further. Offering to help, or even inviting her kids over to your house, is a better way to build the trust and confidence that may help her to feel safe enough to speak about things later on. Persevere in a friendly way. Keep things light, and share some of your own struggles so that it becomes “normal” to talk about problems in your relationship with her.


Remember that shame and fear of being judged are huge barriers for a parent to admit they need help. Have compassion for these feelings, try to see things through her eyes, and persevere gently. Stay involved, even when you feel rejected by her.

If your friend refuses your offers of help, or to take her to see a doctor or counsellor, or to allow someone to come and visit, you will need to get some help yourself. Visit your local community service providing family support or counselling. Or call one of the helplines on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website.

Ask for advice about how you can help your friend to get help. You may need to try a number of different services before you find someone who “gets” what you and your friend need. Remember, being in the role of helping a struggling friend is tough on you too.

There are services available everywhere to support parents who need help. The frustrating thing is that the people who need help the most are least likely to reach out or find these services. So it is up to each of us to build the bridges of help for those who need it.

Being a friend who hangs in there through the tough times is the greatest gift you can give another person.

Most importantly, trust your instincts. In our culture we are biased towards assuming that everyone is coping or we need to keep our nose out of other people’s business. It’s hard for us to see things for what they really are, and this stops us from reaching out to someone who is not able to ask for help

We are all responsible for Australia’s children. And we all need help at times. Be the help someone else needs and you will be joining a movement of all the mums and dads of Australia who care for our kids. You will be part of the rising tide of prevention and early action which will lift up all our kids and stop the vulnerable kids from being left behind.

Anne Hollonds is chief executive of the Benevolent Society, and a child and family psychologist.Contact child welfare or a school teacher, Centrelink, a doctor or police if you have concerns about a child’s wellbeing – or visit the Australian Institute of Family Services .


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