‘Christmas isn’t all Santa and reindeer for everyone’

Rise in domestic abuse and impact of restrictions on children overlooked, say Childline workers

Eric O’Byrne, volunteer at Childline, says  the home can become an unsafe place for many children over Christmas. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Eric O’Byrne, volunteer at Childline, says the home can become an unsafe place for many children over Christmas. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

This was the year that we were all told to stay home; that staying in would mean we were safe and protected. However, for many children in Ireland, that simply was not the case.

Eric O’Byrne, a volunteer at Childline’s Dublin unit, said the initial surge in calls was from children anxious about Covid-19, but as households became full, and parents were forced to stay home, new issues arose.

“You might have a family of two parents and four kids, and because of the age of the kids and school and work, they were rarely in the house together,” he says.

“And then suddenly, you have everyone on top of each other, and then you add in everybody who was out of work, losing their job or in fear of losing their job. It led to a substantial rise in domestic abuse.

“We certainly saw a knock-on effect of parents being out of work, or losing work, and then taking that out on kids.”

As the festive period looms, many are excited about what might be left under the tree, but for many others it is a difficult time.

Christmas Day is one of the busiest of the year for Childline. The service believes this year, when financial stress and Covid-19 restrictions are combined, will result in contacts from users increasing “significantly” .

“The resounding message tends to be a reminder that Christmas isn’t all Santa and reindeer for everyone. For some kids, they literally can’t wait for it to be over. They see what it should be like being plastered everywhere and it’s basically the total opposite for them,” O’Byrne says.

Alcohol and abuse

“The home can go from a potentially safe place initially to a very unsafe place or very uncomfortable place as the day progresses. There’s definitely, for some people, domestic violence that tends to be, or can be, alcohol-related.”

Domestic violence against children takes all shapes and forms, according to O’Byrne, who highlighted sexual abuse as a particular problem.

“When I joined the service, I thought sexual abuse was a thing of the past. I’ve learned that is not the case at all,” he says.

“It’s very difficult to deal with a child who is at an age where they don’t fully understand what is happening. They feel that their parent truly loves them, but, unfortunately, they’re being raped by that parent.”

While the rise in domestic abuse as a result of public health restrictions has been acknowledged in recent months, its impact on children is often overlooked, according to Cork-based volunteer Megan Sarl.

Powerless witnesses

“People hear domestic abuse, and the child is often left out of that. The child that calls us, they’re being hit or they’re being sexually abused. It happened last night, it happened an hour ago, it’ll probably happen tomorrow and that’s a real child,” she says. “It’s one of those issues that fly under the radar.”

Sarl adds that the child does not have to be the victim of the abuse to be affected by it.

“They’re there when there’s fights happening, they’re there when mom or dad shoves the other one, they’re witnesses and they feel so powerless. They’re scared and lonely and, in particular this year, they couldn’t really escape anywhere.”

Outside of domestic violence, Sarl says there has been a substantial increase in calls from children with suicidal ideation.

“At the minute, it’s all about a new year, new this and new that, but kids aren’t seeing that light at the end of the tunnel.”

Childline can be contacted by any child or young person by calling 1800 66 66 66, texting to 50101 or chatting online at Childline.ie 24 hours a day, every day

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