Childline - 20 Years On

The night Childline was launched twenty years ago in England over fifty thousand attempted calls were made and the vast majority of calls were about sexual abuse.  The opportunity for children to break the silence on their dreadful experiences of sexual neglect heralded a realisation among adults of the degree to which children had been left unprotected.  A similar breakthrough occurred in Ireland and the sad statistics emerged that one in four children had been sexually violated.  As often happens when great neglect has been perpetrated, an over-correction occurs which can result in children being neglected all over again, albeit in a different way.  There is no more powerful way to express love to a child than by a hug, an embrace, a silent holding.  Worryingly, men in particular, even fathers, have become wary of cuddling children.  Teachers have become so legally conscious that a child who falls in a schoolyard may not receive the comforting hug that he requires to soothe his pain and embarrassment.  This deprivation of an innocent cuddle is a great loss for children and for adults.  After all, it is the intention that determines the quality of a hug, not the hug itself.  It is important that the pendulum swings back to the middle ground of spontaneous physical expression of love, so that children who experience the absence of holding do not suffer the devastating experience of not feeling loved.

In recent years, the majority of calls from children have been about bullying.  Even though schools are required to have an anti-bullying policy, thousands of calls are being made by children desperately wanting to know how to deal with those who bully them.  I believe there are many adults who still naively believe that bullying is not a common phenomenon or that it is something that children need to go through to ‘harden them up.’  The reality is that bullying can make miserable the lives of those children who are bullied, leading to terror, fear, nightmares, school drop-out, depression, self-harming and even suicide.  Children do need to be physically and sexually safe, but they equally need to be emotionally safe.  Emotional neglect among children can be a dark sea that children are drowning in and it is vital that adults are on the alert for its presence.  My concern is that many adults bully, and it is unlikely that they will spot bullying among children, because this could bring attention to their own threatening behaviour.  Indeed, it would be wise for any adult who needs to champion children who are being bullied to first look at their own reactions before attempting to correct the actions of children who bully.  They are unlikely to be effective and, of course, it is likely they will fight fire with fire, which only worsens the situation.  Children who are challenged aggressively about their bullying will either retreat in fear or escalate their own aggressive responses.  In such circumstances, no understanding of what underlies the bullying develops and a real resolution is not now possible.  In my experience, children are not consciously making life difficult for other children or for adults, but they are subconsciously attempting to bring the attention of significant adults to how difficult life is for them.  For all concerned, it is important that these symptoms are not flown in vain.

Not surprisingly, the second most common difficulty children ring about today is family tension.  It would appear that the high level of marital separation, divorce, work addiction, success addiction, over-burdened single, lone or separated parents are impacting on children’s emotional wellbeing.  The key issue here is the quality of family relationships and the degree to which conflicts are resolved, whether the family is intact or separated.  What most distresses children is the continuation of conflict between their parents or between their parents and grandparents.  When parents part amicably and support each other in the parenting of their children, and each strives to maintain and deepen their relationship with each child, children cope well with their parents separating.  However, the reality is that conflict often continues and so children’s insecurity deepens. Whilst I would not encourage parents to stay together for the children’s sake, I would encourage them to resolve their differences even though living apart and bring this maturity to bear on their individual parenting of their children.

Childline remains an invaluable source of support for children, and for adults and invaluable insight into the difficult worlds of children.  Active listening and determined action are required on the part of adults, so that children will continue to reach out to us.

To all those adult volunteers who give of their time to Childlines, thank you.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a consultant clinical psychologist and author of All About Children.