As a parent under pressure – who are you gonna call?
Meet the volunteers at the other end of Parentline helping fellow parents to help themselves
Parentline volunteers, Nora Given, Fiona Murray, Deirdre Curtin and Malcolm Argyle. Photograph: Sara Freund
Rita O’Reilly, chief executive of Parentline. Photograph: Sara Freund
There are a lot of angry and aggressive children out there, judging by the figures from Parentline for the first seven months of this year. It is the most common reason for parents to call the national helpline, significantly ahead of stress and relationship breakdown, which are the next two most frequent concerns.
The confidential and anonymous nature of the service is undoubtedly a reason that the problem of child aggression figures prominently among its clients. It is an issue that parents may be ashamed to discuss with extended family or friends.
By calling Parentline, they can unburden themselves to a supportive and non-judgmental listening ear.
From run-of-the mill troubles with teething toddlers and truculent teenagers to distressing sex abuse cases and domestic violence, the chances are that the volunteers answering the phones at Parentline’s offices in the Carmichael Centre, in Dublin’s north inner city, will have heard it all before. In any event, they are well trained to deal with whatever arises during their weekly, three-hour shift on the helpline, which operates just over 50 hours a week.
“We give parents information, guidance, support and, I think, above all, we give them presence and give them time,” says Parentline chief executive Rita O’Reilly. It’s a place to seek clarity, free of emotional baggage.
The service needs a minimum of 40 volunteers, as at least two must be on every shift, but O’Reilly prefers to have about 50 on the books. The most successful volunteers are older, whose children are now adults – “partly because they have got the free time but also because they have the experience”, she explains. Currently, just under 10 per cent are men.
The organisation recruits carefully because the initial six-week training, followed by 20 hours shadowing and then ongoing monthly sessions to keep them updated, is a considerable investment, so they need to ensure volunteers are not only suitable but also committed. It gets a €56,000 grant from Tusla towards its €73,000 running costs (see panel) but further fundraising is a challenge as, obviously, there is no database of people who use the service, and volunteers are already giving a lot.
O’Reilly puts much thought into matching people on shifts and they are encouraged to “debrief” each other after calls. The main skill needed for the helpline is being able to listen and to prompt reflection with leading and open questions.
“The parent will come up with the answer themselves because they know their child and they know the environment they are working in,” says O’Reilly. “We are just a process for them to go through.”
So who are these people at the other end of the line, willing to give of their time and their hard-earned wisdom, to help fellow parents help themselves? And why do they do it?
She knows exactly when she first heard about the helpline: “It was 1992. My oldest girl never slept and I was sitting up in bed one morning having stayed up most of the night with her and I heard a radio advertisement for Parentline.”
It was just what she needed and this motivated her to become a volunteer some years later. She is acutely aware of what it takes for someone to phone a total stranger.
Of course some calls are “incredibly tough” to listen to. Drugs and violence within families, financial problems, marital problems . . . and they go “right across the social groups”, she says.
“I am actually humbled every time. Babies don’t come with a booklet [of instructions] and we’re all trying to do our best and sometimes it is not good enough, or what that particular child needs.
“It is the most important job we are going to do. Maybe as you get older, you get to appreciate that more,” says Tuite, who is among the volunteers who do follow-up, face-to-face sessions with callers if they want to drop in.
Over the years teenagers have been a constant topic of calls but she has noticed a definite trend. It would be quite common now to get parents ringing up worried about a teenager going into his room and not coming out.
“Whereas possibly before it would have been that he was out on the streets and they couldn’t get him in.”
Like all the volunteers interviewed, she talks about the satisfaction of giving back: “You feel you are helping someone by just listening to them, or maybe directing them to some organisation that they hadn’t thought about.”
When she was first approached by somebody already involved with Parentline, she was “a bit iffy” about the idea of becoming a volunteer.
“My reservations were I was the mother of a loose cannon and I didn’t feel I was in a position to be telling other people how to mind their children.” But she soon realised it’s not about that – “it’s really listening”.
She believes middle-class people are inclined to “keep up pretences and they don’t want people to know”. So if they ring Parentline, it is very reassuring for them to find out that what they are struggling with is perfectly normal.
“It doesn’t sound as bad when you start putting it out there and somebody starts reflecting it back to you.”
Some calls stay with you, she says, “but it is very rare that you can’t part from somebody without knowing that you have made them smile”.
As well as being invaluable for callers, “I also think it is an invaluable service for the volunteers,” she says. Now she has the next generation coming along, “it keeps me up to date and I don’t feel as much of a ‘dinosaur’ as I might have done”.
The big difference between when she was raising her children and their parenting now is that “the women are working and the men have to do stuff in the way that my husband didn’t”, she points out.
“But I think in some ways we did the husbands a disservice because now children can interchange with either parent. If I went down the road, I had to leave instructions all over the wall of the kitchen. Also I think children have a better relationship with their dads.
“I think a lot of it is for the good – provided that they are parenting,” she adds. “It kind of blows my mind when they go on holidays and they put children in a creche in a hotel. They are not used to having them all day.”
When he retired from the small animal practice that he had run in Dundrum with partner John Bainbridge for 40 years, Argyle found that he missed his daily interactions with colleagues and clients.
He was just wondering if he was “good for anything now”, when he saw an advertisement in this newspaper for volunteers with Parentline.
“Having been a parent of three children and experienced a variety of hazards along the way, coming out the other end relatively unscathed, I thought I might have some understanding of parents coping with difficulties.”
Argyle had many discussions about family life with clients over the years. He was greatly helped by listening to those a few years ahead of him in their parenting and in turn, “when I got older, I was able to give back some of that help to those coming along behind”.
His two surviving children are in their 40s now – he lost a son in a motor bike accident at the age of 24 – and his only grandchildren live in Australia. So while he was a bit out of touch going into the volunteer training, he came out of it feeling well prepared.
“The main thing for a lot of the time is to shut up and let them talk and take on board what they are saying and then pick out the salient bits,” he explains.
“I have been told women who phone Parentline want to phone, chat and unload whereas men want to get answers. Being a man myself, when I get a call I like to try to give somebody an answer; when I say answer, [I like to] feel as if I have given them a line of help.”
He finds a lot of the calls are from people parenting on their own, whether through the breakdown of a relationship or perhaps a partner working abroad.
“In the entire family, mums and dads can bounce things off each other, be good cop, bad cop in sorting out issues. When on their own, having Parentline to bounce off their thoughts makes such a difference.”
What has surprised him most is the level of teenage aggression to parents.
“I have learnt a huge amount,” he adds. “It also keeps me very interested – reminding me of what I should have been doing years and years ago. Parenting is such an experiment.”
When she returned to Ireland after some years living in the UK, a friend over there continued to ring her for parenting advice. “I said to her, ‘You know it would be cheaper for you to ring Parentline in England than ringing me all the time’ – she was parenting twin girls on her own and had quite a tough time. She said, ‘Why aren’t you with Parentline in Ireland?’ I thought, that’s a good idea.”
Her sons were still relatively young when she started and she says, “It was great, I picked up loads of parenting tips myself.”
As a trainer of volunteers, she believes they are kept well briefed through the monthly sessions. “We try to know what the hot issues facing parents are and base training around that.” Around the time of the gay marriage referendum, they noticed a big increase in calls about sexuality and transgender. As a result, a workshop with a representative of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland was quickly arranged.
Given regrets that Parentline is not as well known as it should be because there is no money for the promotion of a service that she passionately believes in.
“I found if I ever had issues, I would prefer to go to one of the volunteers with it because I knew it would stay confidential until I was comfortable with it myself. I think it helps people figure out that it is not the worst thing in the world and that it is okay to share it with family.”
Given is not surprised that parents trying to deal with aggressive children turn to this forum and volunteers have trained in the Non-Violent Resistance programme. They encourage callers to try to talk about the issue to family or friends.
“When the child realises they are being judged by not just the parents they are inflicting this on but by the wider family, it often calms the situation down,” she explains.
She sees how parents today are under huge stress. “The internet is a minefield for a lot of parents because they are not as familiar with it as their kids and never will be.
“It is all about communication, listening to the kids and understanding where the kids are coming from – and then getting that same respect back from the kids.”
There is no such thing as the perfect parent and every family is going to have its problems, she adds. However, when her sons were teenagers, she used to come out of her regular Monday morning shifts at Parentline thinking that they were not so bad after all.
“I would have thought I had the gift of listening but actually training is so crucial because you can listen and not hear,” she says. “The training is magnificent in Parentline so, selfishly, I am upskilling as well.”
Murray is sorry she didn’t know about the service herself years ago. Parents are very loyal to their children, she points out, and often don’t want to discuss problems with people who know them
“Listening isn’t just about listening, it’s getting someone to face, or put into words, what their dilemma is. And by doing that they nearly have it worked out in their head.”
As a volunteer, turning off the “judgment switch” in your head is crucial and has been “a real learning curve” for her.
One thing she has noticed about today’s parents is that many are afraid to be strict, wanting to be friends with their children rather than setting boundaries
She also realises now – acknowledging that she sounds just like her mother – that raising your children “goes so fast”. So she recommends to all parents out there with younger children, “live in the moment and enjoy it”.
Parentline can be contacted on 1890 927 277 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The helpline is open Monday-Thursday 10am-9. 30pm and Friday 10am-4pm.