Childline volunteer Margo O’Sullivan was asked a fundamental question when she first began training as a volunteer.
Her answer has allowed her to work on the phoneline, taking calls from children all over the country for almost seven years.
“One of the first questions I was asked here was: ‘Are you the type of person who can cope with not being able to fix everything?’” explains Margo.
“And, as parents and teachers, we’re fixers. If you try to fix things for a child, it won’t be their solution and it won’t be a solution that’s right for them because the real solution is their empowerment.
“And how do they achieve that empowerment? It’s having somebody acknowledge that their feelings, their opinions, that their thoughts are important — then they become empowered.”
Margo, who volunteered to man the phoneline on Christmas Day last year, says that calls are more or less of the same nature as any other day, save for one difference.
“Christmas Day, it’s quite interesting,” she says. “It’s the same as every other day except that people acutely feel what they should have more on Christmas Day, more than on any other day of the year. It’s all hyped.
“Families get together and if they don’t have family or if they’re unhappy in their family that can be at the forefront on Christmas Day.
“But you will get people who are bored, who just phone for a chat, and that’s good, we welcome that. It’s supposed to be here for every child to have somewhere safe to call.”
Many callers phone to express their “disappointment”, or talk about “the bad behaviour or the overuse of alcohol” in the home.
Children also phone with their sadness “remembering who isn’t around and who should be around”.
There are several key tenets at Childline. First and foremost, it is there for every single child in Ireland. Secondly, it is a confidential phone service unless the young person chooses to make a revelation.
Finally, Childline is non-directive.
“As a service, we don’t offer solutions,” says Margo. “It’s all about listening and it’s very powerful when you see that listening at play and it’s used properly and the child’s whole world is explored, they start to see their solutions.
“So then the conversation can become about options for them based on everything they’ve told, with them at the centre of everything. You don’t give them solutions but they start seeing solutions through the conversation.”
In terms of how a typical call will play out, she says that a volunteer will listen carefully to the child, and then ask them a key question that will hopefully help them to open up.
Margo says: “Basically, you take the child at the centre of everything and you consider the child as the expert in their world, so it’s your job as the listener on the call to find out everything about how they’re feeling and in order to do that you explore their world to find what the different dynamics are and the relationships they have and the centre is ‘and how do you feel about that?’
“And that question gets them to open up always because they’re not used to hearing that question, somebody really listening to their feelings, their thoughts.”
As a non-directive listening service, where calls are not traceable, there is one exception to a volunteer following up with a relevant authority after a phone conversation, but it is only done with the co-operation of the child.
“You’ll get somebody who is repeatedly being abused and will phone and will not want to make a revelation about the abuse and will not want to say who’s doing it and will not want to say where they live and we won’t ask them that,” says Margo.
“Sometimes they don’t want to report it but they need support and we will always warn them that if you give any identifying information we’re obliged then to report what they’ve told us.”
However, more often than not, calls are not of a “crisis nature” and children will phone to simply be heard and have their feelings validated.
It is important, says Margo, that Childline exists for every child in every situation in Ireland.
“A lot of children who phone here don’t have problems but they need to be in that space where people listen to them properly,” she says. “People have this perception, and we do get crisis calls, but we also get calls where you recognise this is somebody who is not being listened to in their normal life.
“Young people don’t realise that they have rights, God-given rights, so they’re at the mercy of the people in charge in their home and sometimes their rights are not respected within that environment.”
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