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‘Often when a child contacts us, all we hear is quiet sobs’

Sarah Hughes, a Childline volunteer, says some children are trapped in abusive homes during Covid-19.

Image: Shutterstock/fizkes

LIFE AS WE know it has changed for all of us over the past few weeks. Some children and young people now feel they have no escape.

On Thursday 12 March, the day Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that schools across the country would close, those of us who volunteer to listen to children and young people with Childline braced ourselves for the weeks ahead.

We know that difficulties often intensify for children and young people when they do not have the safe refuge of school. This is the place they learn, meet their friends and often where they eat and receive support too. With little warning, all of this was gone.

We in Childline expected an increase in demand for our service – but not to the extent which has been experienced.

In that first week alone, we noted that visits to the Childline.ie site increased by a fifth, there was a 19.8% increase in text engagements, an increase of 8.9% in phone calls and a rise of 4.6% in online chats. Volunteers rallied to ensure the children’s calls for help would not go unanswered.

Our contacts have continued to rise throughout this time – with many choosing to engage with Childline online, where they do not need to fear being overheard. In the month of March, the Childline service noted a 25% increase in children and young people reaching out to us for support online.

Abuse, magnified

Abuse in the home has not stopped on account of the pandemic. With all members of households asked to stay in one place together, tensions, stress and difficulties which often bubble under the surface have begun to show like never before. There is no end to this time in sight. Last week, I answered a call to Childline from a little girl who desperately wished to go back to school.

It is where she feels safe, she told me. It is where she can escape from the screaming at home. It is one place where she knows she won’t be hurt.

It can feel challenging to help her feel safe when no-one knows when she will be able to see her teachers and friends again. As I complete my volunteer shifts with Childline now I have one thing in mind. We’re grown-ups. We understand the world better than young people. Imagine how scary this might feel for a child?

Often when a child first makes contact with Childline, all we hear is silence or quiet sobs. We remind them that we are here for them no matter what – whether or not they are ready to voice how they are really feeling.

We are here for children regardless of what might be on their mind and it’s important that children and young people know this. They can access support for anything today – there is no need for a child to wait until they feel overwhelmed or unable to cope.

The contacts that strike me most are those coming from children who begin by apologising for reaching out for support. ‘I’m sure there are people with way bigger problems than mine’, they might say.

Building resilience

Some of those who make contact tell us about worries that may seem insurmountable to a child – and many tell us about worries that are just unimaginable. Regardless of what might be on their mind, we empower them to be resilient, so as to help them cope with the challenges life may have in store.

My fellow volunteers and I are acutely aware that some children and young people turn to the service because they maybe don’t feel ready or don’t know how to talk about what’s on their mind with a parent or another family member. Uncertainty about their gender or sexuality, for example, might loom large in their minds. They can talk to Childline anonymously, without judgement. In many cases, this might be the first step on the way towards feeling their own personal sense of freedom.

This is an anxious time for parents and carers too – it is a new set of circumstances for us all. Parents and carers may now feel they have to juggle working, educating and parenting all at once.

To me, the most important thing for us all to do right now is to follow the guidance of health officials and mind our mental and emotional wellbeing. It is important that children know they can talk about how they are really feeling, but it is also important that parents and carers know they can access support too.

Talking really does make us stronger. In addition to providing Childline for children and young people, the ISPCC is providing information and guidance to parents and carers every day through its Support Line service.

Details of the service we provide to parents can be found at ispcc.ie/ispcc-support-line. Everyone deserves help during these challenging times.

Help is here

Childline is here for every child and young person, 24 hours a day, every day – no matter what. Yet, we can’t take our existence for granted. We are almost entirely indebted to the public’s generosity, that’s what helps us operate. We can only continue to be here if funds continue to come in.

We rely on public donations for 90% of the charity’s funding. Our contacts are increasing and many of the fundraising endeavours on which Childline depends, such as community events and collections, cannot go ahead.
We are now appealing for support. Please help to keep us listening. Please help us let children know they matter. I have pledged to complete a mini-marathon a day for Childline and would love to have your support. You can follow my progress here.

To donate to Childline today, see www.ispcc.ie/donate-now. Alternatively, text CHILDHOOD to 50300 to donate €4. ISPCC Childline receives minimum €3.60. Service Provider: LIKECHARITY.

Any child or young person (up to the age of 18) in Ireland can contact Childline:

  • Call: 1800 66 66 66 (24 hours)
  • Chat online: Childline.ie (10am – 4am)
  • Text: 50101 (10am – 4am)

Sarah Hughes has volunteered with Childline for the past 10 years. She is based in Dublin and volunteers at the Childline unit in the city. When not volunteering with Childline, Sarah works as Mental Health Programme Manager with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). 

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