Address their distress

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Children need support services within easy reach to cope with difficult situations, writes Christine Chapman

Abby (not her real name) was abandoned by her mother when she was 14. When Abby was found to be self-harming by a teacher, she was referred to a counsellor from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

She says: "When it happened, social workers came to see me to check on my situation. But whenever they came, my mum found out and turned up and said she lived with me. I didn't dare contradict my mum.

"Even before she left she was hardly ever there. From the time my dad left when I was six, she was always out with a lot of different men. She had her own life and wanted to live it. It was hard to mess with my mum - she would drink a lot and used to hit me until my 15th birthday."

Not being able to talk to someone about what was happening to her made it hard to cope. "When I started seeing the counsellor things really started to look up. I'm not cutting myself anymore and I have a lot more confidence."

Abby was perhaps more fortunate than many young people in having someone to turn to at a vulnerable time of her life. Sadly, there are still far too many children and young people who are unable to achieve their potential in life because of emotional and psychological problems.

Without support, they may become demotivated and disaffected, their self-esteem and confidence at risk. By failing to listen and take the concerns and worries of children and young people seriously, we are failing them.

A survey carried out earlier this year by the NSPCC Cymru, at the Urdd Eisteddfod in Anglesey, revealed that young people worry about a lot of things. They were anxious about their weight, people dying, schoolwork, bullying, war, and "my parents falling out". But other issues affect them too. Children and young people are often the forgotten victims of domestic abuse. They need to be able to talk about their experiences as too often they are left feeling isolated by the behaviour they are experiencing at home.

The tragic story of Laura Rhodes, the young schoolgirl from Neath who committed suicide after apparently suffering bullying at school, has highlighted how much more must be done to provide support for children whose daily lives become unbearable.

This autumn, the NSPCC will embark on the latest phase of its "someone to turn to" campaign. Research has shown that children and young people who suffer from abuse, bullying and violence may bottle things up.

The campaign urges them to talk to someone if they are worried and also to get advice and support from a range of organisations and groups.

The campaign is also about mobilising the whole of society, because child protection is everybody's responsibility. The Urdd survey demonstrated that many children (nearly three-quarters of the respondents) would prefer to turn to a friend with their worries, closely followed by a parent or carer - someone they know who is close to them, whom they trust.

Such peer support schemes are felt to be of prime importance by the NSPCC.

Children and young people themselves are trained and recruited so that they can offer support to their peers within the school environment. Counselling should involve not just the child but parents, friends and teachers.

Taking such a holistic approach has been key to the success of Wrexham schools' counselling team. The project, established in 1996, works across the primary and secondary sector.

Children and young people are able to self-refer to the independent counsellor in their school and referrals are also taken from teachers, parents and other professionals. The NSPCC is calling for independent, school-based counselling services to be available for all children, to ensure they get the support they need to reach their full potential.

If young people like Abby are to look forward to a more settled future then the Government must provide independent listening services for them, where their worries are listened to and acted on. This should be a right for all children and not a privileged few.

Christine Chapman is the Assembly member (Labour) for Cynon Valley and a former secondary school teacher. Listening to children and young people was the theme of a short debate at the Assembly this week

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