CHRISTMAS Day is a busy time for the volunteers of Childline, who work shifts throughout the festive season answering calls from distressed children.
Over Christmas, Childline will answer over 1,000 calls. In 2017, it took 350,000 calls and responded to almost 30,000 online message contacts. Megan Sarl, 24, is a stalwart volunteer. This year will be her seventh Christmas Day on the phones helping kids through a difficult time.
She said: “I started on Christmas Day 2012 and at this stage, it is just routine to be volunteering on Christmas Day. I absolutely love it.”
Megan, who is also a qualified youth worker, said Christmas can be really busy for Childline. In particular, calls can mount up later in the day.
“In the evening time, the phones are hopping. Children call in about everything, there is a huge wide variety of calls that we get.
“A couple of things that always come up is around alcohol, family issues, bullying, sexuality, relationships, school. Just because it is Christmas Day doesn’t mean that those thoughts or feelings get paused.
“If a kid is being bullied through social media that doesn’t stop either.”
The range of issues raised by the callers is broad, Megan said.
“There wouldn’t be a huge amount of abuse calls, but children home alone, parents are gone to friends’ houses or family houses and kids not wanting to be there, as well as fights between siblings, parents drinking.”
Presents can often be a trigger too - especially when children are comparing with neighbours and friends.
“Kids do talk about what they did and didn’t get for Christmas. There is that kind of pressure on young people today to have the latest gadget, toy, whether it is — a pony that sings or an Elsa doll, but a lot of kids do talk about their Christmas presents.”
In many cases, though, the festive season doesn’t even getting factored into the conversation.
Megan said: “A lot of kids just don’t talk about it, there is something else is on their mind.
“That actually happens a lot. Sometimes you come out and you forget you are on Christmas Day because you just don’t have any conversation about it.
“We couldn’t assume that every child is enjoying Christmas Day or is having a Christmas Day, especially with so many ethnic backgrounds in Ireland today.
“We would never kinda say: ‘How is your Christmas Day?’ We would just ask: ‘How is your day going?’ Small things like that just to be aware of.”
Some calls hit much harder than others, Megan said. Calls relating to mental health and suicide are the most difficult to handle.
“We have quite a lot of suicidal calls. Suicide would be one of the main issues among young people today. Especially around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, there is a kind of hopelessness among young people.
“Everyone is making New Year’s resolutions, and talking about new things that are going to happen in 2019, but some kids are so stuck in their situation that they don’t see past that, which is quite sad.”
The youthworker said that suicidal calls can be emotionally draining.
“Sometimes you come off the call not knowing what is going to happen next. You can feel quite helpless then yourself.
“A child that is going through suicidal thoughts is at the end of their tether really and we can’t tell a child what to do, but we want to support them where they might not feel supported at home.
“We encourage them to call back or seek support in their own lives.”
It is the hardest call to put down, she added.
“Sometimes a child might call and then hang up suddenly. And you are left screaming at the phone what happened. We are just hoping that they call back again or they get something out of the call.”
The 24-year-old signed up to Childline after seeing an advertisement when studying at UCC. She hasn’t looked back since.
Discussing her motivation to help others, Megan said that she was aware of the pleasant and happy Christmas times she had as a child and felt she wanted to help other children have a better Christmas.
“A lot of kids have hard Christmas Days and I was quite lucky that I grew up having a good Christmas with happy memories, but there is an awful lot of kids that don’t.”
The Christmas Day shifts are broken up into two or four-hour shifts and Megan said she usually works in the evening.
For many, it could be a challenge to step away from their own Christmas celebrations but Megan said she has no issue doing so. She said her parents are used to her volunteering, too.
“A lot of the Christmas aspect of it is over at that stage you are just sitting down to watch movies or that.”
She said that knowing a child has been heard gives her satisfaction.
“Just because it is Christmas Day doesn’t mean children don’t have thoughts and feelings. So just being able to listen to children and empowering them is a great help.
“There are so many adults that don’t listen to children so just being able to be that one good adult and a supportive person in a child’s life is fantastic.”
In terms of coping with the various calls that come in, Megan said all the volunteers receive excellent training and are well able to handle them.
“We are really well trained, there is a really extensive training programme that we go on before we go on the phones and one of the things is you deal with is the worst case scenarios of everything.
“One of the best things is you always have support here, you are never here by yourself. There are always two or three volunteers on and we have a great line management as well.”
Thankfully, Megan said it is not all doom and gloom and they do get a lot of enlightening calls including children calling back to say thanks.
“We have campaigns at the moment around ‘head bombs’ and I had a young girl around nine who said she was learning in school about ‘head bombs’ and about the Childline and the numbers they could call and she was just calling to say she was sad and she really wanted to talk.
“I just thought that was one child helped that day and she spoke about her birthday and her dad and it was really nice, it was a lovely call.”
The Childline service also receives some group calls, which may have been known as prank calls in the past.
“We don’t use the word prank calls. You might have a group of children shouting down the phone and making jokes, but they are just children being children and if they feel that Childline is a place where they feel comfortable to do that so be it.
“We don’t mind any child ringing up.”
Megan said that among the group, there could be one child who really needs to talk and they will see that Childline is a safe place to confide in.
“Some of them are quite funny, there are some very funny children out there that make us laugh on a Saturday night.
“Sometimes, it can also be a relief, you might have just come off a suicidal call and then it is nice to hear kids just having a laugh, enjoying themselves.”
Megan was keen to emphasise that any child can call Childline, you don’t have to have an issue to call.
Childline is a service that is very important to children, it is confidential, it is available for children 24 hours, seven days a week.
“It is not a helpline, it is a talk service,” says Megan.
“Children can call for a chat, they can talk about their everyday life, some calls might be more harrowing than others, but all are answered.”
Childline can be contacted on 1800 66 66 66 (operating 24 hours a day) or by texting to 50101 between 10am to 4am daily or by chatting online at Childline.ie from 10am to 4am.