I’m worried my child isn’t safe with the other parent

If you’re worried your child’s wellbeing or safety is at risk from their other parent or someone linked to the parent, you may be unsure what to do. Sometimes you may need to get advice from a professional.  

If you have concerns about your child’s wellbeing, there are some steps you can take.  

Boy walking alone

Understand what risk looks like 

Your child may have said something about their other parent, or someone associated with them, that worries you. You might have noticed a change in their behaviour. Reasons your child may be at risk with their other parent include:   

  • Alcohol or drug misuse.  
  • Unmanaged mental health conditions.  
  • Witnessing domestic abuse.  
  • Emotional, physical or sexual abuse. 
  • Emotional or physical neglect. 

You may not have a clear idea what’s happening when your child is with the other parent, so don’t jump to conclusions or panic. It can be helpful to keep a record of things you notice and what your child is telling you. 

Create a safe space for your child

Children will sometimes act out their feelings instead of putting them into words. If they are struggling, they may become aggressive, defiant, quiet or withdrawn. Some children will have a gap of a few days or weeks between something happening and talking about it. 

Notice when your child is behaving out of character. Create regular times when they can speak to you about things that are bothering them. Try doing activities together, where talking isn’t the focus, to create a space where your child will want to share their feelings. This might be in the car, during story time, or at bedtime.  

Don’t push for information. Instead, ask them how their day was. Then wait for them to talk about any problems when they’re ready.

Listen to your child

If your child has told you they are unhappy or don’t want to be with the other parent, make sure you listen to them. Tell them what you’ve understood from them and help them identify any emotions they might be feeling. This will ensure your child knows you have heard them.  

If you need to ask more, watch out for leading questions. Instead, ask open-ended questions, starting with ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘when’.   

When talking, try to:  

  • Stay calm so that you hear what your child says.  
  • Pay attention to the language your child is using – if they use a phrase that doesn’t seem to have come from them, trust your instincts.   
  • Remember the age of your child and talk with them in an age-appropriate way.  
  • Keep an open mind and be careful not to make assumptions.   
  • Avoid promising to keep what they’ve told you a secret.  

    Depending on your child’s age and the situation, you might agree next steps with them. It’s OK if you don’t know what these are straight away. You may need to think about it.  

    When your child has finished talking, tell them it’s good that they’ve spoken to you. Make sure they know you want them to keep sharing things with you. Acknowledge that it may have been hard for them. Then move them on to something enjoyable or calming.

    Contact the other parent

    If you have concerns and you’re in contact with your child’s other parent, try speaking to the parent. Only do this if you feel that it’s safe. It may not be appropriate to speak to them if they are caring for your child at the time and you think it might increase the risk.  

    It can help to:   

    • Find a time that works for both of you.   
    • Approach the topic in a way that avoids blame.  
    • Share any worries, and give them time to listen and respond.  
    • See if you can agree on how to tackle the situation. 

    Put the child’s wellbeing at the centre of the conversation and any decisions you make. If the conversation leads you to believe your child has been harmed or at risk of harm, report this to the local children’s social care team.  

    If you don’t have contact with the other parent

    If you’re unable to communicate with your co-parent and you have concerns about safety or wellbeing, consider if it’s safe for your child to be in contact with them. For support on this, contact your local children’s social care team or the NSPCC for advice.  

    If there is a child arrangement order in place, it will say who your child can see and when. This is a legal agreement. If you wish to stop your child seeing the other parent, you will need to apply for a change in the child arrangement order. In an emergency, contact the police on 101 or 999 for advice about breaking the contact order.  

    Withholding contact without doing this could result in legal action, as you will be breaching the original order. Child Legal Advice has more information on parental disputes. The government has some information about court orders.  

    Explaining changes in contact time to your child

    Sometimes your child may want to see their other parent even if it’s not safe. Think about your child’s age when you explain why things are changing. Try not to worry them. Make sure they know it’s not their fault and the changes are to make sure they’re safe.  

    If appropriate, you may be able to arrange supervised contact via a trusted friend or family member, or a contact centre.  

    Allow your child to express their feelings. It may be a loss to them. They might want to keep a photo in their room or something that reminds them of their parent. It’s OK for them to talk about the happy times.   

    It’s best if they don’t overhear friends or family saying negative things about their other parent. They could feel hurt and confused.

    Get support

    Hearing your child tell you they have been unsafe or unhappy can be difficult to hear and may cause you distress. It’s important to seek support for yourself. This could be from a family member, friend or professional.  

    If it feels right, let your child’s school know what’s happening. Ask them what support they can provide your child. You can also speak to your health visitor, GP or family support worker.   

    NSPCC has some information on what abuse and neglect look like. Citizen’s Advice has advice if your child has experienced abuse. Childline offers online information and a counsellor for children to talk about anything that’s worrying them.  

    Want more support? For advice on your specific issue, speak to one of our parenting coaches.   

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