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Saying the Unsayable: What's affecting children in 2012

We have called this report “Saying the Unsayable” because that is how children and young people use us, and explains why they desperately need ChildLine. The vast majority have never been able to tell anyone else about their suffering. It’s when they have been silenced by fear, or shame, or believe that nobody cares about them, or that they themselves are to blame for their suffering, that they turn to us. Whether by phone (our lines are free, confidential, and open 24/7) or by contacting us online, they trust us, find they can tell us everything, and our counsellors listen and reassure them. No, we tell them, it is not their fault that they feel suicidal, or that they self-harm, or that they are being abused, or bullied. Yes, we say, there is hope, together we may be able to find a solution; even talking about it, sharing the problem, takes a child one crucial step forward, towards the safety every child needs and deserves.

I wish we could bring in a binding law that decrees that every child must be loved and secure. Certainly every child needs loving security, but even though we cannot

create those circumstances for them all, we can still transform desperate children’s lives by giving them hope, and lifting their self-esteem. It has been my privilege to meet and interview young adults who rang ChildLine when they were children (for my book Running Out of Tears, published by Robson Books, royalties to ChildLine). They told me the difference ChildLine made to them. They said that until they contacted us they had believed that nobody cared or believed in them and that happiness was out of reach. Our counsellors gave them hope. And hope is what makes life worth living. And that literally turned their lives around.

Some things have changed in the 25 years since ChildLine launched in 1986. Sexual abuse was the most common problem then. Now it is ranked 5th – still far too common, but according to the NSPCC’s most recent “Prevalence Survey” both sexual abuse and physical abuse have decreased in the last two decades. I believe that is at least partly due to ChildLine’s creation,because ChildLine is not only a support for children, but a deterrent to abusers. It’s not all been good news. For example, family problems did not figure in our top 10 issues 25 years ago but now they are right at the top. We need to ask ourselves why children are so often so desperately unhappy at home, that they find family life destructive, rather than the support it should be. What has changed?

There are other disturbing changes, new problems facing today’s children; cyber bullying, internet grooming, “sexting”, and sexual grooming by groups of abusive predators. Technology has proved, as with every new invention, that it can be exploited to bring new dangers. But technology has also enabled us to liberate young people with online counselling. And thanks to the mobile phone, children no longer have to run out into dark, lonely streets at night to make a safe phone call to us, as they once did. Now they can ring us safely wherever they are, and I know of occasions when we have brought a lost child back to safety when she had been dumped in the middle of bleak moorland in the winter, and reassured a suicidal child hanging from the parapet over a motorway when she had felt so hopeless and desperate she wanted to die.

We are saving lives, we always have. But another huge change is that now, for the first time, we are answering every child who needs us the first time they ring, or contact us online. A huge milestone in ChildLine’s history.

This report contains a picture of the nation’s unhappy children – what it does not show is that nearly every phone call or online contact, no matter how painful the child’s situation, ends more happily than it starts. ChildLine’s notice-boards are filled with thank you messages from children whose hearts and spirits have been lifted. So I would like to pay tribute to the generations of dedicated staff and volunteers who have spent the last 25 years listening, comforting and protecting children – lives saved, abusers brought to justice, and 2.6 million young people who, without ChildLine, would have had nowhere else to turn.