Safe and Supportive Family Environments

Safe and Supportive Family Environments

29 July 2014
Safe and Supportive Family Environments

Dr Daryl Higgins' follow up comments on the report, A safe and supportive family environment for children.

Today, the Department of Social Services published a report I wrote with Dr Killian Mullan about safe and supportive family environments for children.

While most children live in safe and supportive environments, governments are aware that too many children are becoming known to child protection services. This has led to a shift in thinking away from solely concentrating onstatutory responses to ‘risk of harm’ reports towards a broaderpublic health approach to protecting Australia’s children, reducing the likelihood of children coming to the attention of statutory authorities

The purpose of our analysis was to understand more about the prevalence of different types of family environments in society and to explore the influence of these environments on different child outcomes, and whether this supports a public health approach to child protection. Much research attention in this area has been focused on the most problematic families (particularly those who come to the attention of statutory child protection services). However, we know relatively little about different family environments in the broader population. Based on data from children aged 2-11 years in Growing up in Australia – a representative longitudinal study of Australian children, we identified three kinds of family environments in which children are growing up:

  • Cohesive families: the largest group of families exhibited average or above-average levels of parental warmth and parent–child shared activities, and below-average levels of hostile parenting and parental relationship conflict.
  • Disengaged families: a smaller group of families exhibited below-average levels of parental warmth and parent–child shared activities, and above-average levels of hostile parenting.
  • Enmeshed families: a small group exhibited average levels of parental warmth, but higher than average levels of conflict in the relationship between parents.

We found that the family environment was related to children’s wellbeing, such as: Health:

  • children aged 2-3 in enmeshed families were more likely to be underweight (than normal weight); and
  • children aged 2-3 in disengaged families were more likely to have one or more injuries per year.

Social and emotional wellbeing:

  • children in either disengaged or enmeshed families had lower levels of prosocial behaviour and 
higher levels of problem behavior.

Cognitive development:

  •  children in disengaged families had lower Year 5 NAPLAN reading and numeracy scores.

But most importantly, as it is a longitudinal study, we were able to look at those children where the nature of their family environmentchanged. We found that transitions were associated with children’s later outcomes:

  • children whose family environment improved (i.e., became more cohesive) showed improved social and emotional wellbeing and gained higher NAPLAN reading scores; and
  • children whose family environments became more problematic (i.e., became less cohesive) displayed more social and emotional problems.

Policy implications Family-related policies and programs directed to parents with young children may be more effective if they:

  • are attuned or sensitive to different family environments
  • target behaviours rather than groups of people (we found problematic family environments weren’t concentrated solely in low-socioeconomic families)
  • recognise that families can both change for the better, and draw on their own prior (positive) experiences.

Public health interventions can include:

  • broad availability of evidence-based parenting programs and supports (not just to high-risk families already known to child protection services), and with a range of intensity and back-up supports for parents who may need it.
  • public information campaigns to promote information about positive parenting practices, and where to go for further information and supports – though further evaluation is needed of what constitutes an effective campaign; see: Are social marketing campaigns effective in preventing child abuse and neglect?
  • targeted referrals for intensive family support for those where more support is needed (i.e., progressive universalism).

Within a public health framework, how can the broader health and human service delivery sectors assist with the task of protecting children and increasing the safety and security of all Australia’s children?

It is important that those who routinely come in contact with young families are able to be child-focused, and aware of the opportunities for improving the life circumstances for children. This includes those in the health sector—particularly maternal and child health workers—as well as education and care services. One example proposed by the Productivity Commission in its July 2014 draft report on child care and early childhood learning is that families where a child is assessed as being ‘at-risk’ of abuse or neglect receive funding for up to 100 hours per fortnight of early childhood education and care services.

Under the Commission’s proposal, the assessment of risk would be undertaken by a qualified child care worker, social worker, teacher or medical professional, and would not require a notification or assessment by the statutory child protection service, which reduces the stigma to individual families in need.

Child care and early childhood education settings would have a unique opportunity under this strategy to respond to the needs in the family environment by simultaneously providing parents with parenting skills and information.

In doing so – not only would they be providing a consistent, calm, high-quality learning environment away from the family (through the offer of free child care), but helping families improve the environment to which the child returns at the end of each day spent in child care.

Improved parenting knowledge and skill may also increase parents’ employability in the long term, as a positive and consistent parent is likely to display the kinds of attributes that are needed for success in the workplace: organisational skills, emotional calmness, persistence, warmth, and structure.

By not relying on a notification to statutory child protection service for such a referral, it will hopefully widen the net of supports for families who are not at high risk, but may become so unless they are equipped with supports to improve their family environments.

Our analysis of the Growing Up in Australia data provides a clear impetus for a public health approach to promoting safe and supportive family environments. Professionals who come into contact with all families (e.g., maternal and child health workers, early childhood educators and carers, and other health/allied health professionals) can be on the look out for dynamics that could indicate a lack of family cohesion and parenting practices that are less than ideal, in order to provide education and support, or refer for more intensive service interventions.

Protecting Australia’s children is not just the work of statutory services: its part of everyone’s business who works with children and their families.


NOTE: Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children is conducted as a partnership between the Department of Social Services (DSS), the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The findings and views reported in this paper are those of the authors and should not be attributed to DSS, AIFS or the ABS.


Just have to say as having myself used that service of being able to organise holiday care for a family in the midst of severe crisis, it was excellent. I was ever so thankful for the availability of this resource and the positive impact it had for the children I was working with. It would be even more beneficial if the service I referred the children to would be able to help with parenting strategies as mentioned above, however just the positive environment was a Godsend.
Really, Childcare and early childhood education settings would have a unique opportunity under this strategy to respond to the needs in the family environment by simultaneously providing parents with parenting skills and information. Thanks for the info (edited by moderator).
Sunita Madan

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Daryl Higgins

Associate Professor Daryl Higgins was the Deputy Director (Research) at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, where he had responsibility for the Institute's research program and its knowledge translation and exchange functions.

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