No typical shift

Hollie Richardson on volunteering as an e-mail counsellor for ChildLine.

Being a child can be difficult. We face a lot of challenges – from family problems to self-esteem issues, from school issues to coming to terms with sexuality. I was no different, struggling in my childhood with family separation and bullying at school, but I was lucky enough to have a supportive network around me. Unfortunately, some people aren’t so lucky.

That’s one reason I applied to volunteer with ChildLine as an e-mail counsellor last summer. After applying online, going to a group interview and having an intense day of training, I went home feeling both excited and sick with nerves, but ready to start my first shift as a volunteer e-mail counsellor. Since that first day, I’ve learnt a lot about ChildLine, counselling, children, and myself, so I thought I would share a typical shift…

It’s five o’clock on Friday, and I’ve just finished work for the week. Before I can go home, get into my pyjamas and prepare for a night with a good box set, I head over to the ChildLine office in Birmingham for my shift. I get some sweets from the tuck-shop and settle in to the briefing room to hear the updates from the week. Every session ends with a ‘success story’ – a message from a child who has been helped by ChildLine. This always gets us motivated, if we weren’t already, to go out and make a difference for the next four hours (the length of each shift, as it can be very difficult and emotionally draining work at times).

With a cup of tea in hand, I settle in at one of the computers, log on and wait. Within seconds my computer is pinging. It’s a first contact, a 14-year-old wants to leave home but doesn’t know their options and how to go about this. This is the first e-mail I’ve received on this topic, and I have no idea what to recommend. I put my hand up to get some support from my supervisor; after reading the e-mail themselves, they ask me what I think I should say in response. Something I learnt early on is that with e-mail counselling, it’s OK to be at a complete loss with your response at first, and there’s always someone to help you when you feel like this. This is the main reason I started with e-mail counselling rather than jumping straight onto the telephone. I’ve since learnt just how important the e-mail service is; ChildLine receives a lot of silent calls, often young people calling for help but feeling too ashamed or scared to speak to us. Esther Rantzen, founder of ChildLine, hopes the introduction of e-mail counselling will provide a lifeline for young people who have had their voices taken from them through abuse, bullying, or anything else affecting them.

With my initial panic reducing, I work with my supervisor to construct a response that will help the young person if they decide to leave home. However, I’m careful to make sure the young person is informed of all of the possible consequences – it’s not going to be smooth sailing for a 14-year-old going it alone. Instead, I urge them to come back to us so we can help them through whatever is going on for them at home – ‘We’re always here to listen and support you, 24/7’. And it’s onto another e-mail…

This time it’s a young person who has been talking to us by e-mail for some time. I read the e-mail to check for any immediate risk, and then begin to read back through the conversation to get a deeper understanding of what’s happening. I can see that she’s has been struggling with an eating disorder for some time now, but hasn’t felt able to get help from anyone close to her and is too scared to see her GP.

For me, this is one of the lows of volunteering for ChildLine, as I realise you can sometimes only help so much; as an e-mail counsellor you are always there to listen and support young people, but you can only break the confidentiality promise if someone is in immediate danger. So, even though this young person has been struggling for a long time, I can only repeat the advice previous counsellors have given her – ‘We’re always here to listen, but it’s really important that you get help from someone close to you as well, so thing’s can start to change for the better for you’ – and hope this gives her the courage to speak to someone. This is difficult and disheartening, but it’s important not to get sucked into the ‘doom and gloom’: although I can’t ‘fix’ everything, I’m still here to make sure the young person doesn’t feel alone.  

Come the end of the shift, we all head back into the briefing room for a de-brief. Esther Rantzen recently discussed the fact that counsellors often found they took home the memory of difficult conversations, leading to volunteers ‘burning out’. Now, all our shifts end with an opportunity to talk with our supervisor and fellow volunteers about the conversations we’ve had with young people and the support we’ve offered. It’s during this time that I’m able to reflect and realise that there is no typical shift: we’re always hearing from new young people with new problems and worries.

Although my experience as an assistant psychologist prepared me with some of the skills needed as an e-mail counsellor – for example, I was able to offer advice to service users and other counsellors about types of therapy I otherwise would have no knowledge of – I quickly realised that there’s always more to learn. I have since learnt a lot of skills with ChildLine that I now use in my role as an assistant psychologist, such as the importance of validation, and the ability to reflect back to the service user what they have told you so they know you are always listening to them.

For anyone with an interest in counselling or clinical psychology, or who just wants to make a difference to young people’s lives, I’d highly recommend volunteering for ChildLine. It can be daunting – trust me, I’ve been there! – but the e-mail counselling allows you to learn some skills you need without the pressure of the live interactions, and there’s always someone to support you. I’m sure we all have advice we’d love to pass on to our younger selves, so why not start giving it to young people who might be experiencing the same things? 

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