Childline founder Esther Rantzen: ‘We all need to make time for our children’

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Childline founder Esther Rantzen: ‘We all need to make time for our children’

With an alarming rise in primary school age children struggling with anxiety, Childline founder Esther Rantzen reveals how best to help youngsters through lockdown

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

For young children living through the Covid-19 lockdown, parents can only wonder what they will remember in years to come.

Perhaps it will be the empty streets, the closed schools, restaurants and shops, the abandoned park swings, but perhaps also that powerful symbol of hope displayed in almost every window: a rainbow.

Up and down the country, youngsters have been encouraged to take part in the Rainbow Trail campaign, not only to show their support for the NHS, but also as a way of connecting with other children and helping to spread a smile.

That campaign has in turn inspired a touching story, The Cloud and the Rainbow, about a lonely cloud who is reminded to have hope whenever he sees a rainbow in the sky.

Childline founder Dame Esther Rantzen and TOWIE star Samantha Faiers have both shared videos of themselves reading the story on social media, as part of a campaign from Lidl, which has pledged £2million over the next two years for the NSPCC’S telephone advice service.

While for many youngsters the story is a perfect choice for bedtime reading, there is also a deeper message for children struggling with anxiety during these times – and according to Childline, the number of those needing the charity’s support right now runs into the thousands.

According to the latest figures, Childline provided counselling sessions for 2,700 young people aged up to 18 who were worried about coronavirus, between the end of January and the middle of April.

Of these, 492 were aged under 11, and sought help for mental and emotional health
issues, including anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Some were even counselled for suicidal feelings and self-harm.

One 10-year-old girl told her counsellor: “I am seriously struggling without my support person. I have suicidal thoughts, self-harm a lot and just want to run
away. I was feeling like this before the coronavirus, but I feel the coronavirus has made my suicidal thoughts worse.

“It scares me when I think about ending my own life and I am afraid for my safety.”

The impact of lockdown on young people has varied widely from having their
routines disrupted and not being able to see their friends, to becoming anxious about the news, seeing their parents lose their jobs and being cut off from vital mental health services and professional support.

Some have found themselves looking after their siblings while their parents fall ill with coronavirus, while others have been forced to stay within a home where there is physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

For veteran broadcaster Rantzen, who turns 80 next month, there is the added problem of vulnerable children being cut off from their grandparents, with all over-70s facing a prolonged period of lockdown.

She tells me: “There are many families where grandparents are not only supplying childcare, but for children living in homes that are not safe, where there may be violence or addiction, they also provide their one safe haven.

“So we are particularly worried about those children, who are not in safe places and haven’t got the support of their friends, their schools, or their grandparents.”

Rantzen, now living in the New Forest, has equally realised the “huge loss” grandparents are feeling at this time – including herself – having been physically cut off from family while in lockdown.

“It’s a very precious relationship,” she reveals. “I think the children love conversations with their grandparents. As you get older, you think opportunities are diminishing and then suddenly the grandchildren come along and your life takes off again, like a firework. It is exactly like that.

“You develop these wonderful, magical relationships with your grandchildren – and it’s a huge loss when you can’t hug and cuddle them.”

Dame Esther Rantzen has highlighted the mental health issues faced by primary school age children during lockdown

Still, Rantzen can at least talk to her grandchildren over the phone – and talking, she believes, is key to helping any child experiencing anxiety at this time.

“It’s all about conversation,” she explains. “Parents think if a child hasn’t said something that there is no problem, but actually they might be trying to protect the parent by not talking about their fears.

“One of the things I am most concerned about is that the kitchen table – where we all sit down and have a meal together – is becoming a rarer and rarer piece of furniture.

“So many children are used to having a meal on a tray in their bedrooms while virtually communing with whoever on the internet, but actually it’s face-to-face conversations that still work the best. You do need to make time for your kids and now we’ve all got time.

“Maybe this virus will teach us to be less busy, less frenetic and worry less about our emails – and do more for the people we care most about.”

Childline can be contacted on 0800 1111 or


Top tips for helping a child with anxiety

  • Talk about feelings and worries
  • Keep in touch with family and friends
  • Balance screen time with family time
  • Try to create structure and routine
  • Help your child practice stress-busting
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