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Dublin: 8°C Tuesday 15 June 2021

Things I’ve learned from seven years as a Childline volunteer

After seven years of volunteering, I’ve learned a few things about young people that are worth sharing.

Claire McNelis

THIS WEEK I will do my last shift with the ISPCC’s Childline and Teentext service after seven years of volunteering. It’s probably the most fulfilling work I have ever done, and with some of the warmest, most inspiring people.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned that I think are worth sharing; the key takeaways, if you’ll forgive me. They represent my own opinions, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ISPCC or Childline.

1. “Familiar danger” is a much bigger threat to children than stranger danger.

You wouldn’t think it from the stories that make the headlines, but I have heard many accounts of abuse in Childline and can’t remember one where the perpetrator was a person unknown to the victim. Perpetrators are family members, family friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, schoolmates and peers. This should inform how we try to keep our children safe, and also how open we are to spotting abuse when it’s around us – it doesn’t always take the form that we imagine.

2. Homophobia is alive and well in our schools.

It’s tempting in the wake of the landslide victory for marriage equality to think that the battle is won, but we’re not quite there yet. I’ve talked to several children in their early teens who know they are gay and who are fine with it themselves, but know they can’t come out until they move away or go to college because their friends say horrible things about gay people and would alienate them completely if they knew.

These children have usually given it a lot of thought, and are talking to Childline because they can’t talk to anyone else in case their secret gets out. The matter-of-factness with which these kids are resigned to burying such a key part of themselves for the next four or five years is heartbreaking. We owe it to them to keep up the good fight; children shouldn’t have to live a lie.

3. Bullying is big, both online and in real life.

Bullying is a very common theme with both teenagers and younger children, even though often they don’t recognise what is happening to them as bullying. Sadly, in almost every school, in every corner of our little island, there are children busily dedicating themselves to making someone else’s life miserable.

The most common manifestations seem to be social exclusion and verbal abuse, although physical bullying definitely still exists too. Interestingly, online bullying hasn’t exactly supplanted traditional, face-to-face bullying; rather, it complements it. The children who say mean things to another child at school and exclude them from all their activities will now go home and harass them online or send them malicious texts.

The main difference between then and now is that if home time once provided some reprieve from bullying, that no longer exists – it’s now 24/7, and can be very insidious. Rather than pretending it’s not happening or demonising the bullies, we need to figure out what’s prompting the behaviour, teach kids why it’s wrong and support them to interact functionally with their peers.

Bullying behaviour emerges early – it can be spotted at age three or four. We should take the opportunity to catch it at this age and nip it in the bud. We need to teach our kids kindness and compassion alongside their ABCs. And to the teachers who insist that bullying doesn’t happen in their school, I’ll bet you ten brand new packets of marla that it does.

4. Neglect is more common than physical or sexual abuse, but just as harmful.

Neglect is hard to spot, and for this reason very rarely results in intervention, much less prosecution. It is also often the result of parents who are struggling because of alcoholism or other addiction, or sometimes mental health problems, and so doesn’t elicit as strong a reaction as purposeful abuse does.

But a child who is stealing food from their classmates because there isn’t any at home; who has a permanent cold because they’re chronically malnourished; who has nothing to bring in for show and tell after Christmas because Santa doesn’t come to their house*; who hasn’t done their homework because they’re in the pub trying to persuade their parents to come home; who doesn’t have a childhood because they’re busy raising their younger siblings – this child has so much less of a chance at life than other children.

If they have enough resolve and other supports around them, they might pull through, but they can’t do it without help. Often parents can be supported to raise their children properly, and the best interests of a child should be front and centre when intervention is being considered in these cases. There are telltale signs of neglect to look out for, and if you spot them, don’t be afraid to report it – you can do so anonymously.

5. Emotional abuse is a thing, and it doesn’t discriminate by social class.

There are comfortably middle class children whose professional, well-educated parents tell them every day how they are a waste of space and they wish they had never been born – when they bother to talk to them at all. The damage that systematic psychological abuse causes children lasts well into adulthood, often much longer than physical scars.

6. We need to talk to our children about sex, and we need to do it like adults.

I was pleasantly surprised by the maturity with which some young people handle their first forays into the world of sex – they’ve talked it out, bought the condoms, maybe even lit some candles (d’aww) and they drop Teentext a message to talk about how excited they are – more power to them.

Many others unfortunately approach their first time in a state of blind panic or fear. There are many girls, and some boys, having sex for very bad reasons – usually because they think everyone else is doing it (spoiler alert: there are always plenty of other people who aren’t doing it), or because their partner is pressuring them into it and will dump them – or worse – if they don’t.

We need to provide realistic sex education, and we need to do a whole lot better than “Here’s how it all works, now don’t do it. Or if you insist on doing it, use condoms. DON’T GET PREGNANT AND DON’T GET ANYONE ELSE PREGNANT. And remember to feel awkward and ashamed. Now let’s never speak of this again.” We need to have full-on conversations with them about respect, desire, consent and communication – and perhaps most importantly, fun.

A teenager’s decision whether to have sex or not should start with the question “Do I want to have sex with this person?” and go from there. If the answer to that question is no, all other questions are moot. But they need non-judgemental support to make informed decisions for themselves and stand by them.

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7. Children are looking out for each other.

Maybe one in every ten conversations I have in Childline is a child talking about their friend’s problems rather than their own. All the children out there who are struggling with abuse, depression, self-harm or eating disorders (to name only the “big” problems) have friends who are watching them suffer and wanting desperately to help.

We don’t often think of leveraging other children when we talk about how to spot and tackle abuse, when they should be our first port of call. Many children don’t know who to turn to when they are worried about a friend. They don’t know what is illegal or what should be reported – and very few of them even consider reporting real abuse to the Gardaí. Children should be empowered to speak up when their friends are at risk – and they need to be believed, and supported, when they do.

8. Children want to talk.

Young people, especially teenagers, are typically portrayed as guarded and uncommunicative, often with good reason. But huge numbers of them really want to talk about their problems if given the right forum. Childline and Teentext appeal because they are completely anonymous – many of the children who contact us already have counsellors or support workers but choose to talk to us instead because it’s private – anything they tell us goes no further.

Teentext is especially popular because it’s much easier to write things down than talk out loud – and it’s more discreet, especially if you don’t have a conveniently soundproofed room in which to make a private phone call. And children deserve to have this space to talk privately if they don’t want intervention; it’s their call if they want to act or not. But we can leverage the data from Childline’s stats to identify what are the things that young people are struggling with; what are their problems? What are their triumphs? How can we help them?

9. We all have a responsibility to look out for children.

Sure, they’re their parents’ or guardians’ responsibility on paper – but sometimes parents struggle, and it’s up to the rest of us to spot that and lend a hand. The neighbour that reports the unsettling noises next door, the teacher who’s perceptive enough to notice the sudden withdrawal of a usually outgoing student, and the child who tells their parents about the cuts on their friend’s arms – they can all take some amount of credit for lessening someone else’s suffering. Children aren’t responsible for the circumstances they start off in – but we are all responsible for how they fare once they’re there.

*This example refers to families who are following the Irish Christian tradition. There are plenty of families who don’t do Christmas or Santa for cultural reasons and who are obviously raising their children perfectly well and not neglecting them.

Childline is a listening service for all young people under 18 years old. It’s open 24/7 on 1800 66 66 66. If you’d prefer to text instead, text “TALK” to 50101, our Teentext service, or text “BULLY” to 50101 to reach our bullying support service. The text lines are open 10am-4am every day.

All these services are completely free and anonymous. They’re non-judgemental, and you can talk about anything at all – you don’t need to have a “serious problem” to get in touch; we’re here to listen to whatever is on your mind.

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About the author:

Claire McNelis

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