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'To hear a child say they feel listened to is powerful': What it's like being a Childline volunteer

The service, run by the ISPCC, is looking for new volunteers.

Image: Shutterstock/New Africa

SINCE 1986, CHILDLINE has been providing a listening service for children who need it.

Its freephone number can be called up by anyone 18 and younger who wants a confidential ear, someone who will listen to them in a private and understanding way. Someone who won’t judge; someone who won’t try to tell them what to do.

As technology has evolved, the service has evolved too – these days, children can text Childline (run by the ISPCC in Ireland) or chat to them online. Childline is currently looking for new volunteers, and is reaching out to people from all walks of life who are want to work in helping ensure no child or young person in Ireland has to face their challenges alone.

The ISPCC is recruiting volunteers for the Childline 24-hour support line in Dublin, Limerick, Drogheda, Cork, Galway and Mayo. The volunteers receive full virtual training in advance of answering their first contact and ongoing support after this, and the training will take place remotely in September.

What it’s like to volunteer

ISPCC_John_1 Volunteer John Regan

John Regan started volunteering in 2019, and had around 22 training sessions before he started manning the lines. He said he and his fellow trainees learned, for example, how to listen to children, and about GDPR. They would do group listening sessions to workshop what conversations might be like. He told The Journal he felt really supported in learning what to do.

“We were extensively trained by the time we got onto those calls. If you’re listening to children you need to have that expertise, you need to be able to understand what to do. You can get loads of different types of calls from children and no call is ever the same,” he said. 

He was drawn to doing the work as a psychology student in UCD, and subsequently went on to do Applied Psychology. During his masters he was already volunteering with local charities and then decided to apply to volunteer at Childline. As someone who had called the line once when he was young, he knew how much it could benefit children.

How the calls work

On the calls, the volunteers listen to the children, guide them through their thoughts and problems, and give them space. To hear a child at the end of the call say they feel listened to and heard is “indescribable” and “powerful”, said Regan.

Here’s how it works when a call comes in, in Regan’s words:

“We get a call, and we don’t know the number. We have no information like that. We’d answer the call from there and generally when we answer the call we say welcome to the service, we ask them their first name or nickname, and it doesn’t have to be a real name. We don’t ask for second names or anything like that. 

“And then we get an age so that we know. If you’re 18 or under, that’s okay, we can chat. We have some people who call who are over 18, and then we wouldn’t hang up on them but we’d say, look, maybe this isn’t the right service for you, and we’d direct them on somewhere else.”

“We explain to them when they’re on the phone: Childline isn’t going to tell you what to do, or judge you in any way, we just want to have a chat with you and listen to what you have to say.

“And one of the things we also get a lot is ‘are you gonna guys check my phone, are you going to call the police?’. No, we don’t call the gardaí with where you are. We actually ask the callers don’t tell us where you live, don’t tell us where you go to school, because we want to keep the chat private between you and Childline.”

Children typically tend to ring in about topics like family, school, and mental health. In three years Regan has seen a difference in topics discussed – Covid is now a “huge thing” for children to talk about. In his experience it tends to be the aftermath of Covid and the seriousness of it that concerns them, rather than the illness itself – things like having to return to school after time away.

The calls aren’t always serious – they can be lighthearted too, said Regan. Sometimes it’s young people just calling to go through what they did with their day. He’s noticed that the text service tends to be more directly problem-focused than the calls. “The contents of the different mediums can vary,” he explained.

They also get calls from children in foster homes or residential settings, about the difficulties or different dynamics that they are experiencing. While one child might find home life difficult, another might find school difficult.

Regan volunteers for a four-hour shift a week, and found that some times of year are more busy than others – like during exam season, Christmas time, and Mother’s and Father’s Day. Sometimes the people who ring are young parents of children themselves and finding parenting difficult. They would get a lot of calls during Junior Cert and Leaving Cert times, or before college.

Consent of the child

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He’s had calls where he was very concerned about the child’s mental health or their risk of suicidality. What do they do in those kinds of cases, where things might have to be referred on?

“If anything ever needs to be referred, it’s done with the consent with the child,” said Regan. “Whenever I’ve done a referral the child has explicitly given me consent and said ‘I want this to be made, here is my name’.”

It’s never a case of ‘telling on’ the child. It’s about what the child wants. “It is hard to hear it – it’s a very serious topic and we’re all aware of it. This is a young person’s life and it’s hugely important,” said Regan. 

It can’t be easy to deal with these situations, but Regan said he never feels like he’s left to deal with it on his own. The supervisors and mentors he works with in his team help. There’s a sense of teamwork there.

“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel that way,” he said about worrying about some of the children he listens to. He puts on his ‘volunteer hat’ when he steps into the Childline building, which helps prepare him. He also has a support system there for him.

“It is hard sometimes when you get a really tough call,” he said.

But you know, that’s when we talk to other volunteers – we have mentors on the shifts. I’m a volunteer mentor.

If there are tough calls, they can take breaks, maybe go for a cup of tea and chat it through with a mentor. 

In his time volunteering, he says that while the number of calls has dropped slightly, the seriousness of the calls has increased.  

Good listener

Volunteering for Childline isn’t for everyone, but if it is for you, you don’t have to be a professional. Being a good listener who wants to help children is key. “We’re not giving them therapy, we’re not telling them what to do,” said Regan. The volunteers help by listening, “which is still a huge thing”, he said.

A common thing volunteers are asked at the service is if they get crank calls. They don’t call them crank calls at Childline, they call them “testing” calls, and treat them as if they are calls to figure out what the service offers them. They try to treat such people making the calls with respect, knowing that if they ever do want to use the service in the future, they know they can trust them. 

In recent years, the ISPCC has been exploring different avenues of how to reach and help children, so has created this online ’space for anxiety’ programme, for example. 

Childline regional supervisor Mary Nolan Durkan said that the volunteers “play a vital role in helping to ensure there is always someone there to listen, support and empower children and young people in Ireland when they need it”.

The Childline training is comprehensive and equips volunteers with the skills to deliver an invaluable support service to children.

If you would like more information on becoming a Childline volunteer, see ispcc.ie/volunteer-childline or email volunteerrecruitment@ispcc.ie.

Childline is available on 1800 66 66 66 or text 50101.

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