Family Matters: We must make it easier for children to tell

Jimmy Savile.
Jimmy Savile.
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THE JIMMY Savile case shows how important it is for parents and carers to make time to listen to children, says the head of Childline.

Sue Minto said that the phone helpline had not seen a big increase of children affected by the case, but that there had been a lot more adults calling, who have been put in touch with the NSPCC.

She said: “I mentioned it to my own kids, who are 13 and 16, to see if they had been talking about it to their friends, but they hadn’t. I think it’s because Jimmy Savile is such a big figure to us but to them he doesn’t mean anything. His name doesn’t have that same sort of impact to them.”

She added: “This sort of case does show that how open and available we are to our children is really an important issue. It’s especially important as everybody is struggling with this: everyone seened to know about his abuse but nobody did anything. Young people had experiences they weren’t telling anyone about. We have to make it a lot easier for our children to talk to us about things they worry about.”

The Savile case also shows how hard it is for anyone to tell, even as an adult, as grooming techniques are very sophisticated. Perhaps the child is threatened or meant to feel that what has happened is somehow their fault and they are too ashamed to seek 
help as they feel to blame.

Sue said: “We all have very busy lives. Childline has chldren who will ring in and say ‘mum’s always busy’ or ‘dad will get cross’. We then talk to them about when is a good time to to pick and when is a time to avoid, so they have a better chance of getting a good response.

“We will rehearse it with them, saying ‘what about when mum’s cooking, what will you say to her then?’ I don’t know if parents appreciate that children do have those conversations with us, about when can I find the time in mum and dad’s busy schedule and the one about finding the words. We’re expecting a tremendous amount from our kids if we expect them just to tell what is wrong.”

Sue believes that parents and carers have to give their children the chance to speak to them about what’s bothering them from a very early age, perhaps by asking primary age children what was the best part of their day at school but also what didn’t go too well.

She added: “I start conversations with my teenage kids about all sorts of issues like the terrible deaths of that family in their car in France, the 15-year-old who went abroad with her teacher, the Jimmy Savile case – ‘have you talked about this with your friends, what do you think about it’?”

Sue says that it is often easier for parents to talk to their kids about awkward subjects when they don’t have to look at each other, such as in the car or while the adult is cooking and the child is behind them in the kitchen. She says this often works better than a big, dramatic face-to-face sitdown talk, when both sides will probably feel too awkward to take in what they are being told. She also advises that a subject does not necessarily have to be tackled all at once.

If the message is important, it helps for parents to discuss with each other or someone they trust what to say and how.

“You don’t have to do it from start to finish, just build it into the fabric of your lives, like you should other personal safety stuff like crossing the road.”

Childline starts its work in schools from primary age. Sue said: “We work with year 5 and 6 and talk to them about abuse and to have enough knowledge that if something doesn’t feel right there is someone they can turn to. Children of that age need some help to be able to identify risky situations and who they have got in their life they can talk to. Send a really clear message that they can do that with you.

“We want children to have their innocence as long as we can. We don’t want to be the ones to introduce something different to that. With primary age children it is counter-intuitive to talk to them about abuse. We want to do all the stuff about making them comfortable and happy and to have a sense of fun.

“It’s hard to be the one to say something horrible but children need to know that those people are out there and they’re out there in every guise. Even when I was in the thick of working with children I never stopped being astounded at the ability of the abuser to abuse when you think you’ve got them under watch. It doesn’t take many seconds at all for someone to do something wrong.”

She added: “We’ve seen that with Jimmy Savile. Girls said ‘he put his hand on my leg and it felt wrong’. If you were watching it you probably never saw. But that child noticed and knew it was wrong.”

She said parents and carers have to understand that most abuse is not usually carried out by a stranger in a dirty raincoat, but mostly by someone the child knows.

She added: “At Childline we have seen a rise in contact from younger children about people not believing what they are saying. It’s become the top reason why children of primary school age contact us.”

Sue said that Childline encourages children who are not believed to keep telling until someone listens. Staff explain to children that sometimes the adults they trust just cannot cope with the awfulness of what they are being told when they first hear it.

She said that a little girl she worked with thought that the adults around her knew about the abuse by a member of her extended family because there was a photograph of her sitting on his lap.

“To the little girl the picture was one of abuse as it happened when she sat on his knee. The adults didn’t understand its significance to her.

She added: “It’s like the TV star with a hand on a girl’s leg. There’s Jimmy Savile, he’s always got his hand round a girl or has them right up next to him on a sofa.

“We all watched that on TV. We all thought ‘that doesn’t look comfortable’. We all saw it and did nothing to stop it.”